As Omaha and Alaska finish their series this weekend, it’ll be the second time the Mavericks and Nanooks have ever played on a Sunday. However, that first Sunday contest on March 9, 2008, wasn’t just any ordinary game. A triple-overtime thriller that was the third and deciding game of an opening-round CCHA playoff series, the Mavericks advanced with a 2-1 win thanks to J.P. Platisha’s goal 4:22 into the third overtime.
With this season being the 25th season and the silver anniversary of the Omaha program, The Gateway will be taking a look back and reliving some of the top games, players and moments in program history with Silver Season Stories. The Gateway recently talked to Platisha and seven of his teammates from that 2007-08 team, along with head coach Mike Kemp to take a look back at that Sunday night over 13 years ago.
Win or go home
Omaha entered the series as the higher seed and many expected them to handle the Nanooks rather easily. After opening the series with a 4-3 win, the Mavericks stumbled in game two and the Nanooks responded with a 5-3 win. That added pressure of it being a must-win game and it also being the third game in four nights are two of the many factors that made the night so unique.
“It was an interesting night in the sense that it was the third game of a playoff series at home and you’ve got to win that game or it’s a season-ender, so we felt the pressure,” Kemp said. “We felt we were the better team, but as the game went on, their goaltender was incredible. Then as the game extends, you feel that pressure even more.”
With the season coming down to a win or go home scenario, there was a different feeling around the Omaha locker room leading up to that 7:05 p.m. opening faceoff. For the players who were a part of the game, it tests the memory bank a little bit to think back on what the lead-up to the game was like. However, there’s one thing they all remember.
“That day was just so different,” said defenseman Mark Bernier, who was a sophomore on the 2007-08 team. “You’re playing on a Sunday night and it was an elimination game, so everyone was a little tense and nervous, but obviously everyone knew what the task was.
“It was something we weren’t used to or accustomed to, but we’re all athletes and competitors and we all wanted to win that game and were ready to go.”
Whether it was during the pregame meal, skate or anything in between, Bernier said that Sunday afternoon had a little bit of a tense feeling around it. Considering the situation, it’d be easy for anyone to grip their stick a little bit tighter knowing what was on the line.
“Everyone knew it and we talked about it before the game, it’s do or die and win or go home,” said Dan Charleston, a junior forward on that team. “There’s a lot riding on the line, but we knew if we played how we could, we weren’t going home. The fact of the matter is everyone who put that Omaha jersey on that night wanted to win the game. We may not have won as many games as we would’ve liked that season, but we sure didn’t go out there thinking we were going to lose.”
Even with that mindset, it was impossible for the nerves not to kick in — especially once the game entered its fifth and sixth periods.
“I never got nervous during games, but there were a couple times during those last couple overtimes where the puck was in our defensive zone and I remember being nervous,” said Dan Swanson, a sophomore forward at the time. “That was different and strange for me because during a game I had never really experienced that and I think everyone was like that a little bit inside. Our season was on the line and we didn’t want it to end in that fashion.”
In addition to the fact the Mavericks’ season depended on this game, there was an added little motivation and incentive for winning this series. All it took was a look to see who was behind the Alaska bench: former Omaha assistant Doc DelCastillo.
“When you’re going against one of your former assistants and a friend, there’s always that element of intrigue and he’s feeling the same thing,” Kemp said. “It added a little incentive, there’s no question about it, but when it’s over, you go over and give him a hug and tell him how great his team played.”
Kemp quipped no matter what somebody had to win and somebody had to lose, but thankfully he ended up on the winning side. DelCastillo was an assistant for the Mavericks from 2002-07 before leaving for the head coaching vacancy in Fairbanks. Those on the Omaha roster especially didn’t want to see their season come to an end, not only against a first-year head coach, but also one of their former coaches.
“He was our coach so we respected him and we did what he told us to do, but whenever a coach leaves a program you probably want to beat them even more,” Charleston said. “And don’t get me wrong, I liked Doc, but that was the case with him that night. Not that he left us, but we didn’t want to lose to a guy that left our program and that was a little bit of an extra motive to win that game.”
Charleston’s linemate in the game, who picked up the primary assist on Platisha’s winner and also assisted on Omaha’s first goal in the game, agreed.
“Definitely was a motivation,” said Tomas Klempa, a junior forward on that team. “He was a good coach in Omaha and taught me a few things as an assistant, so I really only have good memories of Doc, but yeah we wanted to win against him.”
As for the person who scored the game-winner, Platisha said playing against the coach who helped get him to Omaha was just another element of what made the game so special.
“Doc is the one who recruited me to UNO and he was a great coach when I played for him, but it was a great opportunity for him to go take that job at Alaska,” Platisha said. “You try to focus on yourself and not to think about that in the series, but I’d be lying if I said scoring the game-winning goal in front of him didn’t add a little bit to the whole night and the experience.”
In what was the ninth longest game in NCAA Division I history the night it happened, it’s still the 20th longest game in NCAA history today and by far the longest in Omaha’s program history. In a game that lasted over 100 minutes, it’d be easy for fatigue to kick in.
The penalties started to mount up too. The Mavericks were called for nine in the contest while the Nanooks had 11 of their own. From what Platisha remembers, it made it tough to establish much flow to the game.
“There were a ton of penalties in that game,” Platisha said. “The first overtime and a half fatigue had started to set in, but once we came out for the third overtime we’d been playing for so long that you didn’t really think about it and you’re running on (empty).”
Although both teams were dealing with it, Charleston said the game became more mental than physical in some aspects at that point.
“During the first overtime it’s tough, but fatigue just becomes this sort of an afterthought and you’re not even worried about it,” Charleston said. “Trainers were telling us to drink Gatorade and eat oranges, but I think we as players just tried to remain focused on the task at hand and you didn’t really realize how long we were out there until the game was over.”
‘Anything and everything’
As Charleston alluded to, the fluids and fruits were aplenty in the Omaha locker room. Keeping them on the table was the challenge.
“It’s 10:30 at night and these kids haven’t ate since early in the afternoon, so you start to worry about the fatigue, the cramping and the nutrition,” Kemp said. “Once we got to the end of the second overtime though it just becomes what can we get to put on our spread? We’re sending staff over to the kitchen and getting anything and everything they will give us.
“We brought in some pizzas, some bagels, and guys are downing this stuff because they’re famished. I just remember going into that third overtime just hoping that the energy will be there.”
Swanson said some of his most vivid memories of the game revolve around watching freshman Matt Ambroz down bottles of honey during the intermissions. Ambroz was taking anything he could get his hands on.
“You’re just hydrating and putting any type of sugar you can into your body,” Ambroz said. “I don’t recall anyone running into cramping issues, but you’re just grabbing anything whether it be Gatorade, fruits, honey — maybe even a Snickers bar. I don’t recall anybody eating a Snickers, but if one would’ve been available, I sure as hell would have eaten one going into that third overtime.”
Weight on the shoulders
A position that is already challenging enough, junior goaltender Jerad Kaufmann had to remain calm and locked-in for the entire 104:22 duration of the game. He finished the contest with 51 saves but the reality was if one more of those shots beat him, the Mavericks’ season was over.
“Looking back on it, I realize there was a lot of weight on my shoulders, but when you’re in the moment you have these guys around you and it’s a total team effort,” Kaufmann said. “It didn’t bother me and I tried to approach it like any other game. Yeah you get to that third overtime and think to yourself ‘holy crap, is this going to end or what?’
“You don’t really think about it too much though and my job was to make the next save and keep these guys in the game. Everybody in hockey says one shift at a time or one period at a time, but for a goalie, it’s just one save at a time, and that’s all I focused on.”
Looking back on it now, playing between the pipes in that game is not a position many would envy.
“That was not a position I envied and a lot of pressure riding on that guys’ shoulders,” said Joey Martin, a freshman forward on that team. “The spotlight is always on you, but I know he didn’t want to lose that game and we didn’t want to let him down. For him to only let in one goal over nearly six periods of hockey, that’s crazy and he was one of the biggest factors in us having a chance in that game.”
Bernier joked that nobody even wanted to look at their goaltender during the intermissions. The guys playing in front of him trusted who they had in the crease.
“He had played big in a lot of games for us and that game was no different,” Bernier said. “He pretty much played two games back there and he was playing well, so we trusted him, but at the same time nobody wanted to make a mistake in front of the guy. Especially being a defenseman myself, a turnover in our end could end the game and we didn’t want to leave him to hang out to dry. Thankfully he bailed us all out.”
A faceoff to remember, a dogpile and a stretcher
Just after 11:20 p.m. with a few hundred people left in the Qwest Center, Platisha lost a faceoff inside the Alaska zone, but was able to poke it past the oncoming defenseman. Charleston corralled that loose puck behind the net and fed Klempa in the slot, who had his initial shot stopped, but Platisha was there to do the rest.
“I remember I had won a lot of faceoffs during that game, but that happened to be one of the ones I lost,” Platisha said. “Fortunately, Dan (Charleston) was able to get the puck from the defenseman in the corner and he threw it in front of the net and the puck happened to find my stick with a wide-open net.”
What followed on the Omaha bench was best described by Swanson — chaos.
“When the goal was scored, there were so many bodies in front of the net that I couldn’t even see the puck go in, I just saw people throw their arms up in the air and we all started jumping over the bench,” Swanson said. “You’re just happy the game is finally over and we won, but I honestly think I didn’t figure out J.P. was the one who scored it until about 10 minutes after the game was over.”
A few people down from Swanson on the bench, the reaction was the same for Ambroz.
“I remember trying to get around (Nick) Fanto and a few other guys to jump the boards and get off the bench to go join the dogpile,” Ambroz said. “You’re extending your season, you’re extending the senior’s season and it’s just an emotional high.”
“After the game, we clear the bench and sing the song in the lobby, and everyone is riding an extreme high. Then coach tells us no practice Monday, so you’re riding an even bigger high, and then it all comes crashing down and it was right back to work for Michigan.”
Although there wouldn’t be much time to celebrate in the coming days as the Mavericks had to move on and prepare for the Wolverines, that wait was put on hold. The celebration on the ice carried over into the Omaha locker room.
“One thing I learned from my previous coaching careers was to enjoy the moment,” Kemp said. “When a game ends and you win, celebrate it and enjoy it. Don’t let that moment escape you and they needed to enjoy it, but also come back ready to go to work.
However, just like the game, the celebration was a unique one too.
“I’ll never forget though, we got back into the locker room after the game and Dan Bouska, who was an equipment guy helping Mark Pane, was having a health issue and the paramedics had him on a stretcher and they’re hauling him out,” Kemp said. “So we’re all concerned of course, and luckily everything turned out okay.
“Then I look over and Bryan Marshall, who was hurt and hobbling on crutches earlier, was in the locker room and seemed to not be affected at all during the celebration. There were just so many different added elements and it was definitely a memorable night.”
The unlikely hero
Of all people to score the goal, Platisha’s name might not have come to the forefront. It was his first of the season and first since Nov. 26, 2005.
“J.P. hadn’t necessarily been much of a goal scorer for us, but he’d been a very reliable faceoff guy and a dependable forward,” Kemp said. “To have him go in and win that offensive draw, follow the puck to the net and get the rebound, he earned it.
“He was a guy that played that defensive role and when you have that kind of player have that type of moment, it’s going to always be there. James Chalmers scores the first goal in program history, Jeff Hoggan scores the famous Tuesday night goal against Bowling Green and J.P. Platisha’s goal is right up there. He was just one of those solid guys you could depend on every night and it was great to see him get rewarded.”
His teammates were happy to see him rewarded as well.
“I remember J.P. scoring and I can still see him in front of the net with his hands in the air, and I think the fact he scored that goal is one of the best things about that game,” Martin said. “He was such a great teammate, he’s such a nice guy.
“Even though he didn’t get on the scoresheet much that season, he always came to the rink every day with a smile on his face and worked hard, so we were all so happy to see him rewarded and he deserved it.”
For Swanson, who roomed with Platisha for three years during college and five years after he finished school, it was special to see his best friends play such a significant role in the win. The two also roomed with Kaufmann for two years and all three stay in close contact today.
“It was memorable,” Swanson said. “You don’t get to play overtime games that last longer than five minutes very often and we played almost 50 (minutes). Then to have one of your roommates and best friends score that goal and the other be the goalie, that makes it even cooler.”
An unforgettable night
Stressed, relieved, anxious, nervous, tense — the feelings were all felt throughout the night. Platisha, Swanson, Bernier and Kaufmann will all be in attendance at Baxter Arena this Sunday for Omaha’s game against those same Nanooks. More than 13 years later, there’s still one small moment the group won’t forget.
“We woke up the next morning late and just threw on some sweats, but since J.P. had scored the big goal the night before we let him pick where he wanted to go and he said let’s go to Jams on Dodge,” Swanson said. “So he parks the car while Kaufer and I walk in to get a table and when we walk in there it was like a scene out of a movie because we were so out of place. The music stops and everyone is in their suits and ties or business clothes having a meeting and they’re looking at us walking in thinking what the hell we’re doing there.
“Needless to say we turned around and walked right out of there and told J.P. as he’s getting ready to walk in ‘your goal only gives you so much star treatment, we’re not going here.’ Long story short we still joke about all of that today, but that entire weekend was just so memorable. All of us that were part of it will remember it for a long time.”