Denver boasted the best penalty killing unit in the NCHC this season, thanks in large part to All-NCHC First Team goaltender Sam Brittain. Thursday night in the NCHC playoff opener, UNO converted on three of four power play chances and took a 1-0 lead in its quarterfinal series against Denver. Game 2 is tonight.
The lasting highlight of the game will be Brock Montpetit’s highlight reel goal that broke a 3-3 tie in the third period. Montpetit received a pass from Ryan Walters and beat Pioneer defenseman Joey LaLeggia, expertly slipping by him and sliding a backhander by Brittain.
“He makes a heck of a move,” UNO head coach Dean Blais told the Omaha World-Herald, “and then he goes in and beats an All-American goaltender who’s going to be playing in the NHL.”
Beyond Montpetit’s heroics, however, was perhaps a more important storyline — especially if Omaha plans on making a serious playoff run.
Consider that less than a week earlier, the Mavericks defense fell apart against Minnesota-Duluth, with the Bulldogs prevailing 8-2. Thursday, by contrast, UNO’s defense outplayed Denver’s, particularly in the third period — evidenced not just by Montpetit’s goal but by four blocked shots in the frantic final 60 seconds, and by playing the third period with just five defensemen. Captain Michael Young was ejected late in the second period after receiving a major penalty and game misconduct for a contact to the head infraction. In his absence, his teammates on the back end stepped up — most notably junior Jaycob Megna and freshman Ian Brady.
On the other end, Denver’s defense is among the most trusted in the nation, not just for their play on the blue line but also for their offensive output. After all, with the goaltender pulled late in the game last night, four of the six Pioneers on the ice trying to score the tying goal were defensemen — LaLeggia, in addition to Nolan Zajac, David Makowski, and Will Butcher. That foursome has combined for 32 goals this season.
The Pioneers have lost three of four and five of seven, and now face the end to their season if they lose either tonight or tomorrow. And their defense will have to return to form if they want to avoid that.
“The key was killing off the five-minute major,” continued Blais after last night’s game, highlighting again his team’s effort on defense in Game 1. “It might have switched the whole momentum.”
The question remaining is whether UNO carries that momentum to the inaugural NCHC “Frozen Faceoff” a week from today in Minneapolis.