With 2:46 left on the clock in overtime Friday night, Omaha sophomore forward Matt Miller lined up for a faceoff and blasted home his team-leading fourth goal of the season to give the Mavericks a 3-2 overtime win over Alaska.
“You never question his work ethic out there from a hardness standpoint and he gets rewarded with a nice goal,” said Omaha head coach Mike Gabinet. “He’s a guy that puts in a lot of work on the ice, off the ice, in practice and away from the rink, so to me it’s not overly surprising.”
In addition to being his fourth, it was also Miller’s third game-winning goal of the season. However, there were 62 minutes of physical, back-and-forth hockey that set up the overtime heroics.
Taylor Ward gave Omaha a 1-0 lead with 4:03 left in the first period as he slammed home a beautiful one-time feed from Kevin Conley on a 4-on-3 power play. Conley fired a shot off the pipe just seconds before, but the fifth-year forward corralled a Brandon Scanlin pass from the point and fired one across the ice to a wide-open Ward waiting in the circle. The goal was Ward’s third of the season.
“Power plays can get as complicated as you want them, but at the end of the day it’s early puck movement, shooting the puck and retrieving it,” Gabinet said. “It was a real nice play by those guys to find Wardo open and we all know what he can do when he gets an opportunity to shoot it in the net.”
Jack Randl extended the Omaha lead to 2-0 with 44.2 seconds left in the opening period as he buried a Joey Abate feed in the slot. The goal was the third of the season for Randl and the assist was the first point of the season for Abate. However, the Nanooks answered back in the second.
After surviving a fury of chances between blocked shots and saves from Isaiah Saville, Alaska’s Roberts Kalkis beat the Omaha netminder for a power play goal to cut the lead in half. Kalkis’ goal came at the 7:31 mark of the second period and was just the second power play goal Omaha has allowed this season.
The tying goal came with just over four seconds left on the clock as Brady Risk fired home his second goal of the season.
“It’s disappointing,” Gabinet said of the goal. “Those are ones that coaches don’t like, especially the last minute of play. I’m a big guy at the start of the period or the end of the period, you have to take care of the puck and be smart about it.”
After that goal in the waning seconds, the teams traded chances in a scoreless third period that also saw five penalties called. Penalties were a common theme throughout the night. Regulation would not be enough, but the overtime lasted just 2:14.
Cameron Berg won an offensive zone faceoff back to a waiting Miller who blasted one over the glove of Gustavs Grigals and into the net.
“It was just a quick-hit play,” Miller said. “Bergy did a great job winning that faceoff back and I just stepped into a one-timer. We’re looking to get a quick shot off, so it was a good faceoff win and found its way in.”
With the win, the Mavericks move to 4-1-0 on the season and have won four straight. This comes after dropping the season-opener in overtime against Lake Superior State. It’s nice to be on the other side of this one.
“We’ve just been finding ways to win games and that shows the good character group that we have,” Miller said.
The Mavericks and Nanooks will finish the series on Sunday. Game two is set for 4:07 p.m. at Baxter Arena.
Miller continues hot start
Miller’s overtime-winner didn’t come as a surprise to his head coach, and it’s a result of the hard work and the way the sophomore has started this season. After scoring eight goals in 26 games last season, Miller is already halfway to that number through five games. The faceoff play that led to the fourth one was actually his idea.
“It’s an opportunity for me to be out there when we need a faceoff, so I knew it was a huge (faceoff) win,” Berg said. “It was actually his (Miller’s) idea to do the quick-hit, so it was a pretty smart play by him. I knew if I could win it back he was going to hammer it home.”
Physical and penalty-filled contest
In a game that featured 16 penalties, including one game misconduct, and also a play that almost forced Saville to leave the game injured, it wasn’t easy to establish much rhythm or flow on the ice — especially in the third period where Omaha’s penalty kill unit was tested three times.
“Sometimes you’re not playing with your linemates because they just got done with a kill, but you’ve got to be ready to go when you’re called,” Miller said. “Without that flow in the game, everyone has to be focused and dialed in.”
The Omaha penalty kill unit killed off four of the five Alaska power plays in the contest and is now 23-for-25 on the season. The first three series of the season have all seemed to have a similar theme and it slows down the game.
“I think I’ve come to accept it,” Gabinet said. “It just kind of seems to be the normal. Unfortunately I think the league’s just got to make sure we’re not getting too many calls just to make calls both ways, not just for us. Now you’re up to six or seven penalties a game and the flow of the game is hard when there’s that much special teams.
“Not only from a spectator standpoint, but also from a player’s standpoint. You’ve got to call the penalties that are penalties, but I’d also like to see the game be played at a high tempo for longer periods of time.”
That physicality was something expected coming into this weekend. It’s a good character win, but Miller and the Mavericks know Sunday will require another tough and gritty effort.
“We knew they were going to come hard,” Miller said. “We watched the prescout and their forwards were hunting the d (defensemen) down and finishing hits, so I thought we did a good job of sticking around with them. We need to bring some more on Sunday to match their physicality.”
Extra time, extra strategy, extra excitement
As exciting and entertaining as it is for fans to watch in the stands or on TV, the three-on-three overtime gets the heart rate up a little bit on the ice and on the bench.
“A lot of chances are being made so it’s really exciting,” Miller said. “Sometimes your heart stops at some moments, but everybody is standing up on the bench at other times.”
Gabinet said the game-winning goal was a little bit of a set play and there was great execution by both guys on the play. Miller was rewarded for being in the right spot on the goal, which he said he has done all season long.
“In overtime it’s hard to get it out to that quick-hit player,” Gabinet said. “We had Randl and Miller out there but we subbed Bergy out there for the draw with an offensive zone faceoff and a great blast by Miller.”
There’s also a lot of strategy that goes into the overtime session as certain matchups and combinations become critical, especially with the fast-paced three-on-three style.
“At times we’re looking for certain combinations,” Gabinet said. “The thing that gets a little bit challenging is when you have a faceoff. Ultimately you want to start with the puck in three-on-three and a couple of our centers were down tonight with their draw percentage, so we were trying to find ways to start with the puck.”
News and Notes
- Miller has now scored a goal in four of Omaha’s five games. Omaha has also scored first as a team in all five games.
- Chayse Primeau was called for four penalties, a new single-game career-high. He was called for just two penalties all of last year and came into this season with 10 total penalties. He has been called for six through five games this season.
- Saville finished the night with 21 saves, including nine in the third period. Alaska outshot Omaha in both the second and third periods. The win was Saville’s fourth consecutive, which is a new career-best.
- Omaha has now won four straight games, which is tied for the most consecutive wins in the Gabinet era.
- Brandon Scanlin picked up his third assist of the season. He’s tied with three others for the most assists on the team.
- Nolan Sullivan had the highest faceoff win percentage of Omaha centers at 66.7 percent (6-3).