KALAMAZOO, Mich. — UNO gave itself an opportunity to extend its season Sunday night, even with its own playoff history and the seventh-ranked team in the country working against it at Lawson Arena.
The Mavericks (17-17-5) battled Western Michigan (22-10-5) to a 1-1 draw through 60 minutes of their winner-take-all finale in the National Collegiate Hockey Conference’s best-of-three quarterfinal round.
UNO entered the overtime period with hopes of landing its first road playoff series win since 2000 and its first league semifinal berth since 2001. Those hopes were dashed by Michael Rebry in 34 seconds.
The Bronco senior gathered the puck near the wall and skated toward the net, eventually sending a backhanded shot between the legs of Maverick goaltender Evan Weninger while falling down for a series-clinching 2-1 win.
Western Michigan nabbed the final spot in next weekend’s NCHC Frozen Faceoff in Minneapolis, a destination that has now eluded UNO for a fourth time in the conference’s four years of existence.
The Mavs are too low in the PairWise Rankings to receive an at-large bid to the NCAA tourney. Their season ended with coach Dean Blais saying advancing to the NCHC semifinals will remain a primary goal.
“The culture of this team has to be to expect to get to that Target Center,” he said.
UNO will have to wait another year for that following a hard-fought battle that ended quite suddenly.
The Mavs survived a dominant second period by the Broncos, when they were outshot 18-7 and were forced to kill off two penalties, to get to the third period tied 1-1. They evened out the play again in that frame to force the second overtime finish in the series. After winning in OT Friday, they came up short.
“We knew we matched up well. We knew we had the ability,” Blais said. “The guys had to do certain things to give us a chance, and they did. I was proud of the way the guys competed for 180 minutes, and more with the two overtimes, to get to Game 3 and give us a chance — one shot away from advancing.”
UNO grabbed a 1-0 lead in the finale when Tyler Vesel scored the only power-play goal of the series off assists from Austin Ortega and David Pope 6:31 into the game. The Mavs had a chance to extend their lead later in the first period following another penalty. But, this time, their special teams failed them.
Griffen Molino turned a shorthanded breakaway into the equalizer, finding the net in the final minute of the period. Western Michigan had three shorties, including two by Molino, in a previous win in Omaha.
Blais said not converting on that power play, and then giving up the lead, was an opportunity lost.
“It’s not that we didn’t have other chances,” he said. “But when you get a chance like that, knowing that we have the power play and they’re good on the penalty kill, it cost us — just like the game in Omaha.”
Bronco goalie Ben Blacker, who finished with 22 saves, and Weninger, who had 30, both gave their teams a chance to advance by turning away every shot over the final two periods. The only shot in OT went in.
The careers of seniors Ian Brady, Austin Ortega and Justin Parizek ended with the loss. Ortega notched 70 goals at UNO, second all-time, while finishing fourth in scoring (139 points). He also tied the NCAA record for career game-winning goals with 23. Brady ranks third among Mav defensemen with 77 points.
“These three seniors this year pulled the weight of six,” Blais said. “I thought our seniors led by example. They certainly said things and did things on the ice the right way.”
UNO could potentially bring back everyone but its seniors next season, although that isn’t guaranteed.
Blais also said he plans to be back, although he said he’s read multiple articles stating he would retire.
“Right now, yeah,” he said when asked if he’d back. “I don’t know how the scoop got around.”
Blais said he didn’t have much more to say on the subject, other than that he’d be willing to take a local columnist up on his offer of a new fishing rod and reel whether he returned to the UNO bench or not.
UNO (17-17-5) .............................. 1 0 0 0—1
Western Michigan (22-10-5) ....... 1 0 0 1—2
First period: 1, UNO, Tyler Vesel (Austin Ortega, David Pope) 6:31 (pp). 2, WMU, Griffen Molino 19:31 (sh).
Second period: None.
Third period: None.
Overtime: 3, WMU, Michael Rebry (Lawton Courtnall, Scott Moldenhauer) :34.
Shots on goal:
UNO ............. 8 7 8 0—23
WMU ........... 3 18 10 1—32
Power plays: UNO 1-3, WMU 0-3.
Penalties-minute: UNO 3-6, WMU 3-6.
Goalies: UNO, Evan Weninger (32 shots, 30 saves, 60:34). WMU, Ben Blacker (23 shots, 22 saves, 60:05).