By Shane Frederick
Free Press Staff Writer
MANKATO — Having a little time and space to make plays gave the Minnesota State men’s hockey team a one-game lead in its Western Collegiate Hockey Association playoff series.
Not being able to navigate through Nebraska Omaha’s big trees on defense the next night meant there will be a Game 3 game tonight.
Omaha defeated MSU 2-1 before a crowd of 3,346 Saturday at the Verizon Wireless Center to force a decisive game for a trip to the Final Five.
Minnesota State (23-12-2), which won Friday’s series opener in overtime, hasn’t been to the St. Paul event since 2003.
“They’ve got some big D over there,” said MSU forward Matt Leitner of UNO’s 6-foot-8, 6-7, 6-3 and 6-2 defensemen. “But it’s more on us to get in there and get it done.”
Omaha goalie John Faulkner stopped 34 Minnesota State shots and also got a little help and a little luck. His teammates blocked 21 shots, including nine in the third period. Meanwhile, MSU’s Teddy Blueger hit the crossbar with a wide-open look early in the third, and Dylan Margonari grazed a post in the first.
“I thought our compete level was good,” MSU coach Mike Hastings said. “Hit a couple of posts. I think we need to have a little bit better net presence. I thought we went in there for short periods, not long periods. And to score goals at this time of year we need to do that. …
“There’s a price you have to play to score goals. We’re just going to have to do that tomorrow.”
Minnesota State goaltender Stephon Williams stopped 25 of 27 shots.
Omaha’s first goal came on a scramble in front of Williams. Tanner Lane’s whack at the puck appeared to be going wide, but the goalie had lost his stick, and the puck caromed off the loose piece of lumber and into the net.
That tied the game at 1-all at 14:17 of the first period.
Leitner gave MSU a 1-0 lead at 10:46 when he ripped a shot past Faulkner from the right circle after an Omaha turnover deep in its own end.
Omaha scored the game-winner at 5:21 of the third period. Dominic Zombo finished off a 2-on-1 play with a low shot through Williams’ legs. The play started in the neutral zone after Margonari fell down at center ice and lost the puck.
“They had some bounces tonight,” said MSU forward John-Paul LaFontaine, who was robbed by Faulkner on a close look late in the third period. “We worked hard like they did last night. I thought everyone came out ready to go and ready to play. But guys, like myself, we couldn’t bury our chances.”
Eriah Hayes had six shots on goal, and Margonari had five.
“I don’t have a problem with my team tonight, I don’t,” Hastings said. “I thought the effort was there. We just needed a little more finish.”
Now Minnesota State’s turnaround season may come down to one game. Saturday’s loss dropped MSU from seventh to 12th in the Pairwise Rankings, which determine the NCAA tournament’s 16-team field.
Several MSU players, including defensemen like Zach Palmquist, logged a lot of ice on Saturday, but Hastings brushed off the idea of fatigue.
“When I watch the Tour de France, I think about fatigue,” Hastings said. “Fatigue’s a state of mind, right? So we’re not fatigued.”
Nebraska Omaha 1-0-1—2
Minnesota State 1-0-0—1
Scoring: 1. MSU-Leitner 16 (Grant 11) 10:46; 2. UNO-Lane 3 (Adams 1, Polk 1) 14:17
Penalties: Raubenheimer, UNO (hooking) :35; Hayes, MSU (high-sticking) 12:07; Cooper, UNO (cross-checking) 18:18
Scoring: 3. UNO-Zombo 11 (O’Rourke 5, Megna 5) 5:21
Penalties: Lehrke, MSU (hooking) 2:32
Shots on goal: UNO 7-9-11—27. MSU 9-13-13—35. Penalties: UNO 2 for 4 minutes; MSU 2 for 4 minutes. Power-play opportunities. UNO 0 for 2; MSU 0 for 2. Goalie saves: UNO Faulkner 8-13-13—34 (1 GA); MSU Williams 6-9-10—25 (2 GA)
MSU called its timeout at 17:13 of the first period. UNO called its timeout at 18:15 of the third period.
Referees: Brian Thul, Tom Sterns. Linesmen: Nick Bradshaw, Sam Shikowsky