Photo Credit: DU Athletics
In what was always going to be a hard-fought, physical playoff game, the No. 6 University of Denver Pioneers topped the No. 17 University of Nebraska-Omaha Mavericks by a score of 5-2. After a hotly contested two game sweep over the Mavericks for the Pioneers at Magness Arena a week ago, Denver was able to keep extend its winning streak to 10 while putting UNO in a 1-0 series hole.
Omaha started fast and took the play away from DU for much of the opening period. Every time Denver tried to carry the puck into the zone, the Mavericks had four or five players standing at the blue line keeping DU from setting anything up offensively. Surprisingly, Omaha consistently had the better chances throughout the first period.
“I thought we played a little nervous in the first,” DU head coach Jim Montgomery said. “As the game wore on, we continued to make a lot of mental mistakes. Finals are mentally draining, so our mental energy is what cost us.”
Time and again Denver goaltender Tanner Jaillet bailed his defense out on the shots that got through. DU’s defense bent but didn’t break and the Pios were able to enter the first intermission with the game still scoreless.
The second period started nothing like the first. Just 48 seconds into the middle frame, Denver broke the scoreless tie. Thanks to an Omaha defensive breakdown, Trevor Moore was all alone at the offensive blue line when defenseman Tariq Hammond looked up and found him with a stretch pass. After the perfect pass, Moore was able to shoot the puck through UNO goalie Kirk Thompson’s five-hole to put the Pios up 1-0.
Just over two minutes later, after Troy Terry just missed on a breakaway chance of his own, Blake Hillman took a shot from the point and Terry, positioned perfectly in front of Thompson, tipped the puck through Thompson’s five-hole again to double DU’s lead, 2-0.
18 seconds later, Denver struck again. After Emil Romig’s initial shot was saved by Thompson, Colin Staub found the loose puck in the crease and hammered it home to give the Pioneers a commanding 3-0 lead and their third goal in just 3:10.
All of a sudden, it seemed like Denver had woken up from their Finals Week fog and were set to start dominating the Mavericks. Unfortunately, at the 13:36 mark of the middle period, Jake Guentzel put the Mavs on the board with a fluky power play goal. After Jaillet lost track of the puck behind the net, Omaha found Guentzel to Jaillet’s right while he was looking left and Guentzel shot the puck off of Jaillet’s right arm and into the back of the net to close the gap to 3-1.
At the 17:58 mark of the middle frame, Omaha pulled within 1 after defenseman Brian Cooper was able to beat Jaillet to the stick side and all of a sudden, the Mavericks were back in the game with the score at 3-2.
“I thought UNO played well,” Montgomery said. “They played desperate and we didn’t match that.”
The Pioneers were able to generate a few decent scoring chances in the final two minutes, but it seemed that every time Denver had an odd-man rush, passes weren’t crisp and the puck always seemed to be just out of reach.
Omaha started fast in the third period and the Pios were on their heels for for the first part of the regulation period. Omaha generated chance after chance, but Denver was always there with a blocked shot or a Jaillet save.
Halfway through Omaha’s 3rd power play of the night, Danton Heinen and Trevor Moore had a shorthanded 2-on-1 chance. This time, instead of passing across the crease to Moore, Heinen chose to shoot top right and he tucked the puck just just under the crossbar and just inside the post to give Denver a bit of breathing room at 4-2.
“‘Thank god he’s on our team,’ that’s what I said when he let that shot go,” quipped Montgomery. “It’s a goal-scorer’s shot. I give him credit. I wasn’t happy with his first shift in the period. I told him we need more from you and a couple shifts later, he scores that.”
Heinen’s snipe didn’t slow UNO down, though. They kept playing desperate hockey, and kept pushing Denver to their limit. DU’s inability to clear the puck effectively and break out nearly cost them the game. But the Pios’ bend-but-don’t-break defensive mentality bailed them out, and a gutsy, energetic performance from Emil Romig was a big reason for it.
“Emil has become a consistent energy player for us that provides great energy and puck protection,” Montgomery said. “That’s why he’s in the lineup every night.”
During a shift early in the third period, Romig took a hit from behind down in DU’s defensive end and his head was pushed into the boards. He was hit hard again three seconds later behind DU’s net. That didn’t keep him from working hard, and his defensive effort late in the game is a big reason DU held on to win game one.
With just over four minutes left, UNO pulled Thompson for the extra skater. Denver’s defense held strong despite their obvious tired legs. DU made it hard for the Mavs to do anything offensively or even enter the zone.
Finally, at the 19:03 mark, after Denver had cleared the zone, Heinen forced a neutral zone turnover, skated the puck into UNO’s zone, and found the back of the net with an empty-net goal to ice the game at 5-2.
To say Denver escaped with a 5-2 victory seems counter intuitive, yet that’s exactly what happened. Omaha played good hockey, they forced mistakes by Denver and forced Jaillet to make high quality saves all night. If it weren’t for the efforts of one Danton Heinen and one Trevor Moore, Denver might have been the team in a 1-0 hole.
“Hopefully our brain cells are working better tomorrow,” Montgomery said. “Hopefully we can get back to playing Pioneer hockey.”
Timm Walsh and Todd Anderson were the referees tonight and shocker, they were bad; The Official Todd Anderson Missed Penalty Count™ ended at 9 for the night; Heinen notched his 16th and 17th goals; Both teams had a power play goal scored (Denver 1-4, UNO 1-3); UNO outshot Denver 31-20; Official attendance at Magness Arena was 3,034; Denver stays tied for 6th in the PairWise Rankings with Michigan.
Saturday, March 12
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