LINCOLN — For the first time in nearly a quarter-century, the Omaha Lancers will not be competing in the USHL playoffs.
Though there are three regular-season games left, Omaha's fate was sealed with the two Friday night games.
The first was the Lancers' 4-3 loss to the Lincoln Stars in front of an Ice Box crowd of 4,365. The last of Zachary Aston-Reese's three goals — at 11:16 of the third period — proved to be the winner despite a spirited comeback attempt by Omaha in the final five minutes.
About 30 minutes later, Waterloo clinched the fourth and final playoff berth with a 4-3 overtime victory against 2012-13 USHL regular-season champion Dubuque.
The playoff fields were reduced to four teams from each division instead of six the past two years after schedules were expanded from 60 to 64 games. That proved to be a troublesome — and streak-ending — decision for the Lancers, who missed the USHL postseason for the first time in 24 years.
No matter how the final three games turn out, Omaha will finish this season in fifth place. The 33-27-1 Lancers are 14 points ahead of sixth-place Sioux City and seven behind fourth-place Waterloo.
Lancers coach Mike Aikens said that doesn't mean the Lancers will roll over and play dead in the final three games, including Saturday's 7:05 p.m. rematch with Lincoln at Ralston Arena.
“The challenge for us is to show up tomorrow night and represent the Lancers organization the right way,” Aikens said. “There are some older guys who won't be back next year, and several players still are looking for college scholarships.
“If we put forth the same effort we did tonight, we have a chance of winning that game.”
There was no faulting Omaha's effort throughout its ninth game against the Stars. The Lancers are 6-2-1 against Lincoln this season.
Aston-Reese scored the first of his three goals 3:25 into the game. A clean faceoff win in the offensive zone allowed for a center pass to the top of the Omaha goal crease that he tipped in for his seventh goal of the season.
The Lancers tied it 1-1 at 15:28 when Matthew Gaudreau found defenseman Dominic Racobaldo uncovered at the points. Gaudreau slipped him a centering pass and Racobaldo buried the shot past Lincoln goalie Jackson Teichroeb for his sixth goal and 15th point of the season.
The Stars regained the lead at 17:02 when Aston-Reese scored his second goal by cleaning up a rebound off Omaha goalie Alex Lyon.
Then there were three goals in a stretch of exactly three minutes over the second and third periods that left the game tied 3-3.
Omaha's Tucker Poolman backhanded in his league-leading 12th power play goal of the season to tie the game 2-2 with four seconds remaining before the first intermission.
Lincoln's Vinni Lettieri uncorked a left wing slap shot past Lyon to give the 37-21-3 Stars a 3-2 lead at 1:44 before Tyler Hynes got a pass to Grant Besse at the side of the Stars' net at 2:56. Besse buried the shot for his third goal in six games since joining the Lancers' roster full-time.
Aston-Reese then scored the game-winning goal — and his ninth of the season — for the win. It was the second hat trick Lyon has given up the past two games. In a 5-1 setback to Sioux City on March 30, UNO recruit Jake Guentzel scored three goals for the Musketeers.
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