OMAHA, Neb. — Over the last six games, No. 13 Nebraska-Omaha has struggled to get off to a good start.
Friday night, those woes continued.
But like several other times this season for the Mavericks, it didn’t matter.
After falling behind 3-0 in the second period, UNO rallied with three goals in the second period and got a game-tying and game-winning score in the third period to defeat No. 10 Denver 5-4.
While Austin Ortega has filled the role as Mr. Clutch this season with seven game-winning goals, Friday night, it was senior captain Dominic Zombo who got the Mavericks the win.
Zombo dove head-first at a still puck in the Denver and snuck in the score under Pioneers’ goalie Evan Cowley at 17:47 in the third period. It was reviewed and confirmed.
“That’s just him, that’s him, that’s our leader, our captain,” Omaha coach Dean Blais said. “That’s our guy who dives on his stomach like that. He scored two goals like that at North Dakota last year when I got thrown out of the game. I won’t forget that. He’s got my back always.”
Zombo’s goal came 59 seconds after David Pope scored the equalizer at 16:48. Pope swung from behind the net and scored amongst traffic for the score, his second goal in the last two games.
Despite the Mavs getting out to an aggressive start, the Pioneers struck first when Daniel Doremus sniped the water bottle from the blue line to set an early tone for Denver at 2:40 of the first.
UNO was troubled with continued rushes from the Pioneers following the goal. The Mavs had only two shots on goal through the midway mark in the period and only three until Denver was whistled for too many men on the ice at 14:39 in the first.
Denver killed the penalty and scored shortly after and at 17:21 when Danton Heinen poked the puck to Matt Marcinew, who slung a shot past Kirk Thompson for Denver’s second score of the night.
In the second, Denver started quick again.
After a sloppy turnover by Ian Brady deep in the Mavericks’ zone, Matt VanVoorhis took the puck to the left of the net and drew the UNO defense before firing a pass to Zac Larraza, who had a wide-open shot and scored.
“Getting down 3-0 wasn’t in our game plan,” Blais said. “It wasn’t so much what we were doing wrong as that they were moving the puck. Veteran team, good hockey team, well-coached, obviously, and we still found a way to win.”
It wouldn’t take long before the turnover perils would plague Denver.
At 14:09, Avery Peterson banged in a loose puck after the Denver defense lost it and incidentally kicked it to him in front of the net. It was the Mavs’ first goal within the first 40 minutes of play in four games.
There would be more where that came from.
At 17:08, Denver turned it over again in their zone and Jake Guentzel got the puck, curled around and flung a shot that struck the top of the net to bring UNO within one.
Less than a minute later, Jono Davis threw a shot at Cowley from an odd angle that bounced around his skates into the net for game-tying score at 17:53.
“When we scored that first goal, that was huge because the fans really believed,” Blais said. “They’ve seen us come from behind before and they were ready to win this thing. We’re still in this game, we’re not gonna give up, that’s who we are, that’s our team.”
At 10:02 in the third, Matt Tabrum scored on a simple shot in transition with Thompson screened by defenseman Brian O’Rourke. Blais pulled Thompson for freshman Brock Crossthwaite in just his second appearance this season.
“Brock came in and made two great saves,” Blais said. “They score, obviously it’s game over.”
Omaha has shuffled goaltenders in the last few series with senior Ryan Massa recovering from a concussion suffered just days after recovering from the flu. Despite a late switch, the Mavs managed to find a way.
“When we start a game, we never think about who’s in net, [but] obviously we thought with Massa being out, with the great year he’s having that their team may not be as confident,” DU coach Jim Montgomery said. “But they’re a confident hockey team, they always believe they can come back and they showed it again tonight.”
Omaha has played from behind in now six of their last seven games, but have only lost one of those contests. Despite the continued heroics, Omaha continues to search for the solution to their early-game struggles.
“We went down early. which is something we’ve been doing a lot lately and hopefully, we can take out of our game,” Peterson said. “But that first goal started a lot and from there on we got better as a team.”
Zombo’s goal may resonate as more than just a regular season game-winning goal, as Omaha stole a win without their starting goaltender while staring down defeat following an already-tough stretch of games.
“Past four games, we’ve been very flat,” said Zombo. “We started off kind of like that in the first period, glad we decided to turn it on. All year, we’ve been showing a lot of heart, a lot of character, Coach harps on it. Guys knew we’ve done it in the past, we’re going to come back. Guys knew it in the locker room, everybody on the bench knew, and sure enough, we did.”
Blais attributed “the best year Omaha’s ever had in hockey so far” to Zombo and the rest of the seniors’ effort.
Montgomery was pleased most of the way with how the Pioneers played, but gave Omaha the credit for the way they finished.
“UNO showed why they’re such a good hockey team,” Montgomery said. “They’re relentless and they just keep coming at us and unfortunately, we couldn’t keep the puck out.”