Omaha lives up to historic anticipation, opens Baxter Arena with victory over Air Force

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Omaha celebrates Austin Ortega’s (16) goal during the second period of its win over Air Force (photo: Michelle Bishop).

OMAHA, Neb. — In a night full of energy and anticipation, Nebraska-Omaha freshman Steven Spinner had one word to describe the feeling going into puck drop: goosebumps.

“Right when we stepped out there, I think goosebumps is the perfect word from then on,” Spinner said. “Canadian national anthem, regular national anthem was just all great. Goosebumps. Took a minute to look around and, just so surreal.”

After getting past the hoopla and 10 minutes of scoreless action, you wouldn’t have guessed it from him, or the rest of the Mavericks.

Spinner redirected a shot in the net for the first goal of the game, and the first ever at Baxter Arena, and No. 2 UNO never looked back, defeating Air Force 4-2.

While both coaches emphasized the importance of getting the first goal on this kind of night, Thompson said there was no nervous energy and that the Mavericks were prepared from the get go.

“I mean there was a ton of anticipation surrounding this game for a long time, a lot of build up, and when we got out there, we were ready,” Omaha goalie Kirk Thompson said. “We’ve been preparing for that moment for a long time – years. So when we got out there, we knew what we had to do and it was just really exciting to see that Omaha is as excited as we were.”

Baxter Arena’s inaugural game featured a national anthem performance from Jim Cornelison, an honoring of the 1997-98 team, the viral “taco cannon” and much more, in an event that for many, including head Air Force coach Frank Serratore, meant a lot more than just hockey.

“You don’t get the chance to be a part of something like this very often,” Serratore said. “And I’m sure when the weekend’s over and you reflect back, it was a pretty special occasion.”

The Mavericks pushed the lead to two goals after a Ben Carey penalty for holding at 5:12.

On the following faceoff, the puck was won and sent in to Tyler Vesel, who kicked it to Jake Randolph at the right of the net for the wide-open goal. It was the fifth straight time UNO has opened the game up with a 2-0 lead this year.

Near the end of the second period, UNO’s leading scorer got in on the fun. Austin Ortega flew down the right wing just past the crease where he dove forward and extended his stick to knock in the Mavericks’ third goal. It was his sixth goal of the year, the most in the NCAA. It came from a perfectly placed pass by Jake Guentzel, who earned his sixth assist of the season, the second highest mark in the country.

Air Force showed life in the third period when forward Jordan Himley outbattled two Mavericks along the boards before winning the puck and slinging a shot past Thompson’s glove side top-shelf to end the shutout and make it 3-1.

But Spinner stepped up again.

The Falcons muffed a backwards pass at center ice and the freshman broke away with it, took the puck right to left across goalie freshman Shane Starrett and tapped it in past his skate for the goal.

The Falcons would tack on another one at 13:40 in the third at the hands of Ben Kucera, but UNO would hold on to win 4-2, matching their best season start since the 2010-2011 season.

“I thought we started the game good,” Omaha coach Dean Blais said. “All five games we’ve started the game with two goals. The first goal is huge.”

The Mavericks have never fallen behind this season or tied after the first goal has been scored. After Omaha’s main line had done all of the scoring thus far in the season, Spinner and his line mates talked about striving to make a bigger impact.

“After those first two weekends we all kind of took back and looked at it and said those first two lines are doing everything we kind of have to help them out,” Spinner said. “We went out there and did our best and it ended up paying off, but we need 3-4 lines going every night if we want to win a national championship.”

Serratore had nothing but praise for the Mavericks, calling UNO a “Frozen Four team,” Omaha as one of the best minor hockey towns in the country and Blais a “champion.”

“Having coached here in Omaha, being a part of the Omaha hockey lineage, this thing started with the 40’s in the Knights,” Serratore said. “With the Lancers, that’s when I was fortunate enough to join in, and those great years and days at Ak-sar-ben. Then UNO seized the opportunity, and saw that this was a hockey market and a hungry market.”

Although not satisfied, he was proud of the way his young team, that consists of just four upperclassmen, played considering the environment and continues to play after an impressive start.

“We beat [then No. 5] Denver, first game of the year and most people thought we’d have a better chance at winning the Power Ball than beating Denver,” Serratore said. “The next night, we go up to Denver, and they beat us 3-1, but you know what? We made them work for it. And you know something with UNO tonight? We didn’t give it to them, we made them work for it.”

Tomorrow night, the Mavericks have another chance to extend their historic streak, this time, with a feeling of a bit more normalcy.

“We love it,” Randolph said. “That was awesome tonight. That was a pretty cool experience and just knowing that’s our home arena and we get to try and do it again tomorrow. It doesn’t get better. We’re really looking forward to it.”