In the longest game ever played in Magness Arena that ultimately needed two overtimes to decide, freshman Colin Staub scored the game-winner at 8:54 on a rebound as No. 6 Denver beat No. 17 Omaha, 4-3, to sweep the best-of-three NCHC playoff series.
Staub’s goal came right after he had missed high on a shot from the slot. Emil Romig gathered the rebound and got it back on net, and the rebound came to Staub, who slotted the rebound shot home.
“I don’t know how the second one went in, but I’m just glad that it did,” said Staub. “That first one, I probably could have done a little better job of getting it on net. I’m just glad we were able to get the win tonight.”
“I don’t think we ever played an overwhelming style of play,” said Denver coach Jim Montgomery. “There were segments, like five-minute segments, like the last five minutes of the third, and there were five minutes in the first overtime and the last five minutes before we scored, I thought we were hemming them in, and that’s why we tried to turn pucks up to play fast, and when we do that, they can’t change and they get tired.”
“During the game, I wasn’t really thinking about it at all, but the second ‘Staubby’ scored and (Gabe) Levin made a play and ‘Romes’ was playing great, that line was playing great all night, the second that puck went in, it was hard to hold back some tears,” said Denver captain Grant Arnold. “I won’t joke with you, I saw Levin and Quentin (Shore) and Nolan (Zajac) after the game, it was pretty emotional. What a way to go out though; I wouldn’t want it any other way.”
Omaha had the best chance early in the game when Jake Randolph was sprung on a partial breakaway and got off a shot from the hashmarks of the faceoff circle to Jaillet’s right. He beat Jaillet clean, but rang it off the post, and the puck came right back to Jaillet, who covered it up.
“Obviously when you’ve been struggling to score lately, those are the ones you hope hit the post and go the other way rather than out,” said Omaha assistant coach Troy Jutting. “I think part of that is they have very good goaltending and really strong defense. We needed to catch a break, and obviously we didn’t get one early on.”
However, after withstanding Omaha’s early attempts, Denver struck first. Zajac carried the puck along the left side boards and sent a perfect pass through the slot to Shore, who tapped it into the open net at 5:29 before Evan Weninger could slide back over.
Denver made it 2-0 late in the period after Zajac again made a pretty play. Trevor Moore got the puck deep along the boards to Weninger’s right and one-handed the puck to Zajac, who was pinching. Zajac skated toward the net and got Tyler Vesel to commit by going down on his stomach to prevent a pass. Zajac then stepped past Vesel and passed it to Troy Terry in the crease, and Terry tapped it in at 17:14.
“Zajac took over the game in the first period in my mind,” said Montgomery. “That’s when he’s playing his best is when he’s supporting, he’s active, weaving the open ice. When he gets the puck in open ice, he’s dangerous. You saw the poise, especially on the Terry goal. He had to go a step around someone and then find him on the back door.”
Omaha came out in the second with a lot of jump, and on one early shift did everything but score, again hitting a post in the process. On the shift after that, the Mavericks drew a power-play chance, but only got one flurry, and were unable to convert.
Omaha’s forecheck then caused problems, as Arnold was called for a five-minute major. Midway through the ensuing power play, Luc Snuggerud hit a post with a blast from the right point. On the ensuing goal-mouth scramble, Zajac was whistled for tripping, giving Omaha 1:48 of five-on-three. Omaha coach Dean Blais called timeout to draw up a play, and it worked when Jake Guentzel scored with a blast from the slot that went in off Jaillet’s right pad at 11:17.
After the goal, Arnold was still in the box for another 1:04, but Denver killed it off, and Trevor Moore even had a wrap-around attempt that Weninger stopped.
“I thought it was a tough call,” said Arnold of his major. “I didn’t think I stuck my knee out. That’s playoffs, and you have to take the bad bounces. Our team was unbelievable. We got through that kill. They scored a goal, but right after that we turned a page and got back to work, and that’s kind of our mindset.”
Denver was then poised to get a two-goal lead back when it went on a power play with five minutes left, but Omaha tied it when Austin Ortega stole the puck from a Denver player and got a quick shot off that beat a surprised Jaillet at 16:29.
After getting outplayed early in the first two periods, and having been outshot 21-9 in the second period, Denver came out with fire, and Danton Heinen put the Pioneers back in front when he was sprung on a breakaway and beat Weninger with a snap shot top shelf. Snuggerud was in pursuit and made a dive after Heinen, subsequently crashing into Weninger and then the boards, and was hurt on the play.
Denver couldn’t hold the lead for long, however. After taking another penalty and putting Omaha on a power play, Ortega capitalized, beating Jaillet with a one-timer from the left faceoff circle off a pass from Guentzel at 3:57.
“Obviously we need our goal scorers, and Austin has done that for us the last two years, and those were two big goals,” said Jutting. “The short-hander was one that really got our whole team back in the game, and it helped us get it to the point we got it to, but obviously your goal is to win the game.”
Denver then got 25 seconds of five-on-three when Ian Brady was called for slashing with Luke Nogard in the box already for interference. However, Denver was unable to generate any pressure with the two-man advantage. Denver’s best chance came when Trevor Moore hit the post with a blast from the left faceoff circle.
Omaha got a good chance in overtime on a power play when Guentzel had a one-timer on a cross-ice feed, but Jaillet slid over and made the stop, and then as the penalty ended Brian Cooper let loose a one-time slap shot from the point that Jaillet gloved.
“We created some opportunities there, and when you’re playing a team as good as Denver, you have to take advantage, and unfortunately we didn’t,” said Jutting. “A great credit to them, I thought they did a great job of when we did get our opportunities their goaltender made the saves he needed to make.”
“We were really good on that penalty kill,” said Montgomery. “Credit David Carle, he drafted the penalty kill and asserted what our points of emphasis were. On the other hand, our power play wasn’t good enough. That’s the worst I’ve seen our power play in about six weeks. We got some work to do next week.”
Much of the play was back and forth, but Omaha had the better chances, outshooting Denver 13-7 in the first overtime.
“We just stuck to the process,” said Staub of Denver regrouping after the first OT. “We just made sure to keep on hitting, keep on getting pucks behind their D, and we kept on doing what we do best, which is wearing them down.”
Denver had the first good chance of the second overtime when Romig sprung Dylan Gambrell on a partial breakaway down low, but Weninger made the stop on Gambrell’s quick wrist shot from the slot.
Denver next faces No. 5 St. Cloud State in the Frozen Faceoff in Minneapolis. St. Cloud inflicted the two worst losses of the year on Denver at the end of the first half, before the Pioneers regrouped.
“We’re fired up to play them, there’s no question about it,” said Arnold. “They’re a hell of a team. They have a very explosive offense, good goaltending and good defense. At this time of the year, that’s what you’re going to see every game. We’re excited. We’re going to enjoy this win. The best thing about this team that I love is we get back to work on Mondays. We turn the page and go back to work and our focus will be St. Cloud. I’m really excited to go back to Minneapolis. It’s a great tournament, Target Center is awesome, it’s really special.”