KALAMAZOO, Mich. — Tyler Vesel’s unselfish decision led to his team’s first playoff win in three years.
With a draw looming in the left circle of the offensive zone a little more than four minutes into overtime Friday, UNO’s first-line center turned and asked teammate Mason Morelli to take the faceoff for him.
“Mason’s lefty, and it was on the left dot there,” Vesel said. “I hadn’t been doing the greatest job on my forehand so I kind of figured Mason had a better chance of winning the draw and sustaining pressure.”
Morelli won the faceoff, sending the puck right to Justin Parizek. The captain immediately fired it on goal to score the game-winner as the unranked Mavericks edged No. 7 Western Michigan 2-1 at Lawson Arena.
The victory in the opener of the National Collegiate Hockey Conference best-of-three quarterfinal series moved UNO within a win of advancing to next week’s Frozen Faceoff at Target Center in Minneapolis.
The Mavericks had lost six straight NCHC playoff outings prior to Friday. UNO’s seniors — Parizek, Austin Ortega and Ian Brady — are its only players remaining from its last quarterfinal victory in 2014.
Parizek said he doesn’t even really remember that 4-3 win over Denver at the CenturyLink Center.
“It feels like we’ve been so close in so many big games, even outside of playoffs,” the senior right wing said. “We feel like we’ve always come so close and just fallen short. It feels great to just get a big win.”
UNO still needs another if it wants to play on past this weekend. Friday’s victory helped the Mavs in the PariWise Rankings, but they’re still on the outside looking in heading into Saturday’s game.
They showed a sense of urgency right away on Friday, testing Broncos goalie Ben Blacker four times in the first 60 seconds. UNO had put nine shots on goal by the time Western Michigan got its first, 9:58 in.
“It started in the morning,” UNO coach Dean Blais said “The guys were mentally prepared. The whole week, we did a good job and put ourselves in a good situation. ... It was playoff hockey. What a great game.”
Mavs goalie Evan Weninger didn’t face a shot until WMU defenseman Corey Schueneman launched the puck from beyond the blue line midway through the first period. UNO dominated the opening 10 minutes, yet it still trailed 1-0 at the end of it after Paul Stoykewich scored at 15:34.
Jake Randolph pulled the Mavs (17-15-5) even halfway through the second. The junior left wing backhanded a Luke Nogard assist past Blacker for UNO’s lone goal in regulation. It was the first tally since Jan. 20 for Randolph, who missed seven regular-season games after suffering a high-ankle sprain.
Western Michigan (20-10-5) had to kill off a penalty late in the third period to force overtime. Both teams went 0 for 2 on the power play in a fairly clean game that produced only four combined fouls.
The Mavs and Broncos recorded 16 total shots on goal in the second period and 15 in the third before putting 11 on net combined in the four-minute, 17-second overtime prior the game’s sudden ending.
Morelli said nothing to Vesel when UNO’s alternate captain asked him to take the draw in overtime.
“I’m always a little nervous when Ves tells me to go into the circle,” Morelli said. “That’s a lot to live up to because Ves is a pretty good faceoff guy. I guess I just tried to get low and outmuscle the guy. And it worked out great. Justin was in the right spot. He made that great shot and sealed the deal for us.”
The 2-1 outcome was much different from the previous two games between the teams this season. UNO and Western Michigan combined for 22 total goals while splitting the regular-season series in Omaha.
“Everyone knows that playoff hockey is different,” Parizek said. “Everything is on the line. You’re trying to win a championship. There’s no second chance. Every game matters at this time of the year.”
The Mavs can sweep the playoff series with a win Saturday. If not, a winner-take-all game is Sunday.
UNO didn’t advance to the Frozen Faceoff in the NCHC’s first three years. Now, it is only a win away.
“We talked about it at the start of the year. A goal of ours should be to advance to the Target Center, home ice or not,” Blais said. “We were good on the road. We’re battle-tested. We certainly earned that win.
“Now we want to put them away tomorrow night.”
UNO (17-15-5) ............................. 0 1 0 1—2
Western Michigan (20-10-5) ...... 1 0 0 0—1
First period: 1, WMU, Paul Stoykewich (Colt Conrad) 15:34.
Second period: 2, UNO, Jake Randolph (Luke Nogard) 9:38.
Third period: None.
Overtime: 3, UNO, Justin Parizek (Mason Morelli) 4:17.
UNO ......... 13 9 9 6—37
WMU ......... 8 7 8 5—28
Power plays: UNO 0-2, WMU 0-2.
Penalties-minutes: UNO 2-4, WMU 2-4.
Goalies: UNO, Evan Weninger (28 shots, 27 saves, 64:17). WMU, Ben Blacker (37 shots, 35 saves, 64:17).