In a 60 minute game it’s crazy to think how much of an impact such a small sample size can have. Saturday night, 1:34 is all it took to hurt the Mavericks, falling to the Arizona State Sun Devils by a final score of 5-4.
“I thought at times it was our best hockey we’ve played all season long,” said head coach Mike Gabinet. “We were doing what we executed all week, guys had a great week of practice, and I thought we outplayed them. Again, they got a couple bounces there, and we didn’t. We’ve gotta find a way to win those games when you play like that.”
After Omaha jumped ahead to a 2-0 second period lead, thanks to goals from Nolan Sullivan and Zach Jordan, Arizona State exploded for three goals in 1:34. With 9:08 left in the second Filips Buncis got the scoring started, as he put away his first of the season.
Then, 46 seconds later, Jordan Sandhu followed with his first of the season, tying it 2-2. Just 48 seconds after Sandhu’s tally, Willie Knierim was the fortunate recipient of a carom out in front, making it 3-2 Sun Devils and capping off a 1:34 three goal stretch.
However, Arizona State would not be done for the period. With 3:05 left in the second, Johnny Walker was able to find a loose puck in front of the net and tuck it home, making it 4-2 Arizona State, the score after two periods.
“We told the guys the plan doesn’t change,” Gabinet said about the message after the second period. “The plan doesn’t change from the start of the game–we’re not changing anything, we’ve gotta stick playing the right way and it will come. We outchanced them by a bunch tonight (UNO outshot ASU 48-21.) The tendency there is when you get behind and start chasing, you start cheating the game, and they’re a transition team. You can’t do that against these guys, but for the most part, I thought we played the way we should play.”
For freshman center Nolan Sullivan, the message heading into the third was simple. This team had been in this position before, and they can’t hang their heads.
“I think we just have to be confident. We’ve shown it early in the season throughout games, and even at St. Cloud, we’re going into places and getting big wins,” Sullivan said. “I think it’s pretty easy to get down on ourselves, especially with a young group, but that excuse has to be thrown out the window. We’re at Christmas break here and everybody has experience. I think it’s just about having that faith and confidence in the group that we’re gonna get it done.”
The Mavericks did not quit, continuing a season-long team trend.
“This group doesn’t quit,” said Gabinet. “No matter what the score is, or who we’re playing against, they don’t quit. High, high character in that group, high compete level in that group, and you feel for them in games like this. You deserve a better fate and you feel for them, but all you can control is your response.”
Respond they did. At 4:11 into the third period, Omaha’s Teemu Pulkkinen was rewarded for his effort in front of the net as he put home a rebound off a Tristan Keck shot. The goal was the fourth of the season for Pulkkinen, cutting the lead to 4-3.
Speaking of Keck, this was the senior’s first game back since Halloween. At the time of his injury, Keck was leading the team in scoring, and Gabinet is happy to have him back.
“He’s a fast player,” said Gabinet. “He’s really rounded out his two-way game this year. Obviously he was a little rusty at times tonight, but you can tell he’s definitely an asset for us to have out there. We’re glad to get him healthy and back.”
After Pulkkinen’s tally, 2:41 later with a delayed penalty called, Taylor Ward jumped onto the ice as the extra attacker and came screaming into the Arizona State zone. Ward took a pass from Tyler Weiss and fired it from the slot past goaltender Evan DeBrouwer, tying it up 4-4.
“If you look at our scoring, it’s balanced,” said Gabinet. “We’re not banking on two superstars to score all our points and nobody else to do anything. We’ve gotta play as a team, we need four lines going and everybody’s got to contribute, and that’s really important. From day one, I’ve said we’ve got to be the best team in the country, and team involves everybody. Again you look tonight, all four lines were contributing, so I think that can be a real asset for us down the stretch.”
With the momentum back on their side and the game tied, Omaha would head to the power play, which is where the game would swing back the Sun Devils’ way.
Shortly after Ward’s goal, Brett Gruber went in on a shorthanded breakaway and fired one past Austin Roden. With 57 seconds left on the power play and 12:05 left in the game, Gruber’s goal would put Arizona State back on top, 5-4, the final score of this one.
Omaha outshot their opponent more than two-to-one and had chances all over the ice, frustratingly finishing on the short end of this one.
“Very frustrating,” said Jordan. “It kind of shows at the end there. We were so close to getting that tying goal, and the emotions kind of erupted at the end there. Everybody was ready to get at something. It’s just tough. We outplayed them the whole game–they just buried on their chances in the second. We’ll eliminate that, and tomorrow we’re gonna come out ready to play.”
The emotions he spoke of took place after the buzzer, as Arizona State’s Jarrod Gourley and Omaha’s Taylor Ward got into a shoving match, leading to a skirmish inside the Sun Devils’ zone. Both players were assessed five-minute majors for cross-checking, and both teams were sent off the ice without going through the traditional handshake line, setting up for an interesting game two.
“I think it’s good when you can’t get that final goal to show some excitement there at the end, and send the message for the next night,” said Sullivan. “We had our chances, we had our faceoff plays drawn up, and I thought we executed. Coach Gabinet hit it on the head, we just have one more level to take it, and I think we’re very capable of doing that.”
“After the ending there, it’s gonna be gruesome,” said Jordan. “I’m expecting an all-out battle, and we’re going to do what we can to get a win tomorrow night.”
With the loss, Omaha drops to 7-8-2 on the season, while Arizona State improves to 10-5-2. This was also the Sun Devils first ever win at Baxter Arena, where they are now 1-5-1 all-time.
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