By Nate Tenopir, Senior Staff Writer
Almost five months ago, the college hockey powers that be pegged UNO to finish eighth and ninth in two preseason conference polls. Few, if any, thought the Mavs could do better than average during their first season in the ultra-competitive WCHA.
However, as UNO boarded the plane late Saturday night, the team began the long journey back from Alaska knowing that they can do no worse than sixth place. A split against Alaska-Anchorage and other conference results over the weekend means UNO will host a first round WCHA playoff series March 11-13.
The Mavs rebounded from a bad bounce and a 3-2 defeat on Friday to earn a 4-1 victory on Saturday, gaining the two points necessary to ensure home ice. With four games remaining, UNO is tied with Minnesota-Duluth for third place with 32 points, trails Denver by one point and North Dakota by three for the conference lead.
With Denver coming to Omaha next weekend and UNO traveling to Duluth the following weekend, the Mavs have more than enough opportunity to improve their standing over the final four games.
UNO won Saturday after staving off the seawolves’ early 10-4 shots on goal advantage after the first period. Anchorage had two power-play chances that period, but they were penalized both times.
Early in the second period, captain Joey Martin took a pass from Matt Ambroz and sent a slap-shot high over goaltender Rob Gunderson’s blocker, giving the Mavs a 1-0 lead. Anchorage responded with some pressure and a flurry of shots, but the Mavs lit the lamp again less than six minutes later.
Alex Hudson passed to Bryce Aneloski who found Matt White for his 13th goal of the season. White was able to tap the pass just inside the goal post, giving UNO a 2-0 lead.
UNO had to kill off 29 seconds of a 5-on-3 Anchorage advantage later, but the Mavs went to the locker room with a two-goal lead. Just 52 seconds into the third, freshman center Brock Montpetit made it 3-0 on a goal that rattled in and out of the Anchorage cage.
The Seawolves got on the board midway through the third, but Johnnie Searfoss ended any threat with an empty netter with 2:08 remaining in the game. It was the first time in five games that Anchorage had been beaten at Sullivan Arena.
Though UAA is only 11-16-3 on the season, seven of their wins have accured at home. No WCHA team has been able to go on the road and take all four points from Anchorage this season.
The Mavs were a hard-luck loser on Friday night when a pass from Anchorage’s Brett Cameron banged around skates and sticks before getting a bounce off teammate Daniel Naslund for the score. That goal gave the Seawolves a 3-2 lead midway through the third period. The Mavs were unable to find the equalizer.
Anchorage opened the scoring 11:42 into the first period when Hudson was stripped of the puck and UAA‘s Sean Wiles beat goaltender John Faulkner high on the blocker side for a 1-0 lead. Late in the period, a misplay by Anchorage goalie Rob Gunderson gave Joey Martin an easy look at the net and the UNO captain tied it at 1-1 with 3:27 remaining.
The Mavs turned away an early second period power play and John Faulkner came up big as UNO was skating around in its own end. Anchorage was leading in shots 8-2 and took a 2-1 lead 6:31 into the period on a goal by Tommy Grant.
The Mavs dominated the play after the goal and had two power plays but ended up going into the second intermission trailing. UNO was able to tie it at 2-2 on a goal by Hudson during the first minute of the third period, but it didn’t last long – Naslund’s goal nine minutes later put the Seawolves up for good.
Though the two points assured the Mavs a first round WCHA playoff series at home, they missed an opportunity on the weekend. Friday was a night of upsets in the conference that UNO could not take advantage of.
WCHA leader North Dakota tied at St. Cloud State, Denver lost at home to Michigan Tech and Minnesota-Duluth lost at Minnesota State. As the puck dropped in Anchorage, UNO had the chance to take sole possession of second place and get within a point of the Fighting Sioux.
Yet the Mavs didn’t hurt their chances. Getting a series split some 2,600 miles away from home means staying in the conversation for a conference championship and well ahead of where many thought the program would be in its first year in the WCHA.