By Nate Tenopir, Sports Editor
When Dean Blais was hired in 2009, he promised an up tempo game with lots of skill, and often lots of goals. Many have called it “horserace hockey”.
But after watching his team make mistakes and lose 6-3 in a wide open game the night before, Blais got defensive. The Mavs’ head coach pulled the reins on his offense, and favored extra defensemen for Saturday night’s rematch.
The emphasis on locking down a fast Minnesota State team gave UNO a 5-1 victory and ended MSU’s seven-game win streak.
“I didn’t want an offensive game tonight,” Blais said. “Solid defensemen didn’t allow that. It doesn’t matter if they’re up front or playing back on the point, sometimes they think defense even in the offensive zone.”
The win improves Omaha to 11-6-1 on the season, 7-4-1 in the WCHA, while Minnesota State falls to 10-6-2 and 8-6-0 in conference. It also leaves the Mavs with a better taste in their mouth going into a two-week layoff.
UNO has yet to be swept this season, and Friday night’s loss was the first time the Mavs dropped a series opener all year.
“We went over a couple x’s and o’s, which we don’t go over too much,” Johnnie Searfoss said about the team’s preparation after losing the night before. “This morning we went over a couple different things that we need to work on to maybe make the game a little tighter.”
The previous night UNO gave up a season-high six goals due to some sloppy plays on special teams. Minnesota State went 2-for-5 on the power play and used a shorthanded goal early in the third period to effectively end the game.
The Mavs finished Friday with the lead in shots 28-27, but that was mostly a result of having two third period power plays, and Mankato playing back for the final 20 minutes. Minnesota State outshot UNO 12-11 in the first and 13-10 in the second.
Blais responded to that weak defensive performance by inserting two extra defensemen into Saturday’s lineup. Tony Turgeon and Brian O’Rourke took the places of Aaron Pearce and James Polk.
“We didn’t need the scoring machine,” Blais said about the changes. “We wanted to get out of there with a 3-2 win if we had to.
The Mavs ran four sets of defensive pairs and three forward lines. One extra forward, Charlie Adams, was mixed in with the starters at different times. Early on it made all the difference.
Neither team recorded a shot for the first four minutes, and at the end of the first period the teams had combined for seven less shots than in the first period the night before. When the final horn sounded UNO had held Mankato to one less shot, two less power play goals and five less total goals.
The Mavs used more defensemen but had more shots (33-28) and more goals (5-3) than the night before with 12 forwards. The team also blocked 20 shots Saturday night as compared to just five the night before.
“We wanted to make sure that we weren’t playing kinda wide open like we were last night, and [like] we did last Friday against St. Cloud in winning 6-5,” Blais said. “It paid off. The guys really worked hard no matter who was in the lineup we needed that kind of effort from everyone tonight.”
Searfoss led off the scoring at 16:09 of the first, beating goaltender Stephon Williams with a wrister high over his far shoulder. Zombo made it 2-0 just 26 seconds later sliding the puck through the five hole from 20 feet out.
Ryan Walters scored his 10th of the season early in the second to give him points in 9-of-10, and Matt White made it 4-1 with 2:47 remaining in the game on an empty-netter. Adams capped the scoring 24 seconds later, slamming a puck off Williams who had charged out of the net to stop a breakaway. Williams was out past the faceoff circles when Adams’ shot hit him and deflected backward into an empty net.
Adams goal to end the scoring at 5-1 was the first of his college career.
“I tried to kind of catch him by surprise,” Searfoss said of his goal. “I was out a little farther than most guys will shoot the puck so I tried to sneak it up there, and it worked out for the best.”
Anthony Stolarz started in net and got his second win of the season (2-4-0) a night after replacing an ineffective John Faulkner in the second period. Outside of a Minnesota State goal at 7:24 of the third period, Stolarz was perfect between the pipes.
The freshman stopped 27 of 28, and displayed his athleticism when Mankato had the puck around the net.
UNO’s top line of Zombo, Walters and Josh Archibald came into the series as one of the most prolific in college hockey. Over the previous nine games the trio had combined for 18 goals, 27 assists and 45 points, an average of 5 points a game.
But Friday Zombo, Walters and Archibald were a minus -1 on the stat sheet. Saturday that line bounced back for a plus +4.
“Tonight I felt good,” Stolarz said. “Everything has been good and [I’ve] been working hard in practice. The competition with Faulks (Faulkner) and Belly (Dayn Belfour), it’s great. We push each other in practice, and I’ve really gotten prepared for whenever my name was called.
“Winning tonight was just huge because we lost last night,” Blais said. “We would have liked to win two games but you gotta give Minnesota State credit, too. They’re a good hockey team, they’re probably gonna have a chance for home ice in the first round of the playoffs. That’s a good hockey team.”