By Nate Tenopir, Senior Staff Writer
The Mavs had a chance to make some serious program history this past weekend given UNO’s push for a sell out game and an arena packed with more than 25,000 fans in two games. The Mavs didn’t disappoint, and took two important conference wins against the No. 7 Wisconsin Badgers.
With the wins, the Mavs (18-10-2, 14-6-2 WCHA) gave themselves a six point cushion ahead of the fourth place Badgers and currently only stand two points out of first place. North Dakota took over first place with two wins, Denver slipped into second with two losses and Minnesota-Duluth is tied with UNO after going 0-1-1 against St. Cloud State.
Three series remain for the Mavs, who will face Denver and Minnesota-Duluth before the season is over. The two wins put UNO in an excellent position to finish among the top six teams in the conference and host a first-round WCHA playoff series.
“We have great fans and we’ve always had great fans, but this weekend was just awesome,” said Maverick forward Matt Ambroz. “Especially Friday night with 15,000 plus, it’s the biggest crowd I’ve played in front of in my life. They were loud the whole game — the fans were just into it all weekend long. And when you get that you get that extra little boost of energy and the boys get going off of it.”
Ambroz made sure that the hometown fans would go home happy Saturday night, scoring two goals including the eventual game-winner early in the third period. Brock Montpetit, a Wisconsin native, opened the scoring nine minutes into the first peirod off a pretty tic-tac-toe play from his linemates.
Zahn Raubenheimer skated the puck up the ice before passing it to right winger Ryan Walters. Walters then zipped a pass cross-ice to Montpetit on the opposite wing, who then banged home an easy goal on a wide-open net. Jake Gardiner tied it with 28 seconds left in the period when a rebound from teammate Sean Dolan’s stick found Gardiner on the doorstep.
Seconds later it appeared the Badgers had taken the lead when goaltender John Faulkner was unable to control a deflected shot several feet in the air. Wisconsin’s Mark Zengerle got his stick on the puck and knocked it in, but with his blade well above the cross bar.
The referees conversed for about a minute then ruled the goal was not good.
Halfway through the second period, Johnnie Searfoss’ shot off Badger goaltender Scott Gundmandson came to Ambroz, who fired the shot while being pulled down to the ice. The Mavs had a 2-1 lead.
Hudson’s tip in from the front of the net four minutes later made it 3-1 and Ambroz gave UNO a three-goal cushion four minutes into the third. Wisconsin, however, wasn’t about to go away easily scoring two power-play goals with under eight minutes remaining.
At 4-3 with 3:40 left in the game, the Badgers pulled Gundmandson but were unable to get the equalizer. Wisconsin’s late power play goals were their only two of the weekend.
Coming into the series, the Badgers had the nation’s fourth best power play at 23.9 percent but the Maverick penalty kill held Wisconsin to 2-for-11 and 18.2 percent. Early in the second period UNO had to kill off a 5-on-3 Wisconsin power play for 1:15.
Defenseman Mike Young was called for hooking 45 seconds after teammate Andrej Sustr was whistled for the same call. Wisconsin never seriously threatened in 2:45 of power play time and the Qwest Center crowd of 10,111 erupted into joyous appreciation.
“It was a heck of a win tonight considering we were up 4-1 and having to hang on,” said UNO head coach Dean Blais. “[We] allowed two power-play goals after we killed off the 5-on-3 and a lot of time on the 5-on-4. I think that was the turning point of the game when we killed off that 5-on-3.”
Friday’s turning point came after an Alex Hudson goal 1:41 into the third period. UNO had built a 2-1 lead in the previous period when goals by Joey Martin and Searfoss erased a 1-0 Wisconsin lead.
Hudson stole the puck at center ice and came with enough speed to get some separation on Badger defenseman Craig Johnson. His shot found the back of the net and Rich Purslow sealed the win with 33 seconds remaining on a Wisconsin empty-net.
“To get wins against North Dakota and Wisconsin [is] definitely giving us confidence,” Hudson said. “We’ll just keep trying to build off of that and become an elite team in the country.
• Friday’s crowd of 15,137 was a school record and the largest to watch a hockey game in the state of Nebraska.
• Saturday’s win was Head Coach Dean Blais’ 300th of his coaching career. Blais achieved 262 wins at North Dakota and 38 thus far at UNO.
• Though Wisconsin came into the series having lost only one of their previous 13 games, they also came to Omaha only 1-7-2 against teams ranked the USCHO top-20. Following the sweep, the Badgers drop to 1-9-2 against ranked opponents. UNO is 5-3 against USCHO top twenty teams.
· Coming into the weekend, UNO sat at No. 14 in the PairWise rankings. With the sweep over Wisconsin, the Mavs moved into a tie for seventh with Union College.