There are easier ways to make your season debut.
Not only did UNO goaltender Dayn Belfour appear in a game for the first time in more than a year during the past weekend, he also did it in the Mavericks’ biggest series of the season.
Against powerhouse North Dakota. Against his Hall of Fame father’s former school.
Couldn’t University of Nebraska at Omaha coach Dean Blais have had Belfour get in a little work against an Alabama-Huntsville or a Bemidji State?
“Every game is important, whether it’s Huntsville or UND,” Belfour said. “You approach it as if it’s your last game.
“(But) it was emotional for me playing against North Dakota. That’s where my dad played. I attended all their hockey camps growing up. And that’s where I thought I might end up. … The emotions of both fans and teams on the ice, it was really something special for me.”
Many who follow the program were doing double-takes Friday when they checked their line sheets and saw Belfour listed as the starting goalie. It’s not that Belfour didn’t deserve a start, it’s just that the timing was a little surprising.
But the third-year sophomore from Morden, Manitoba, more than justified the confidence shown in him by Blais.
No second thoughts, coach?
“Maybe my assistant coaches did,” Blais said, laughing. “(Goalie coach) Todd Jones indicated that Dayn had been sharp and wasn’t leaving a lot of rebounds. When the puck hit him (Friday), he was soft.”
It wasn’t perfect, but really it couldn’t have gone much better. Belfour allowed two goals to high-powered, seventh-ranked North Dakota in a one-goal loss.
The first came when Rocco Grimaldi lifted a backhand under Belfour’s arm pit from close range. The second came after he had made several acrobatic saves but North Dakota finally cashed in after UNO couldn’t clear any of the rebounds in a flurry in front of the net.
In fact, Belfour was good enough Friday that when regular goaltender John Faulkner gave up three goals on five shots in the first 10˝ minutes in Saturday’s outdoor game, Belfour went back between the pipes.
“Dayn made a couple of good saves right away, and that kept us in there,” Blais said. “If it goes four or five (to zero), it’s over.”
Belfour stopped 20 of 22 shots and gave the Mavs a chance to make the game interesting in the final 10 minutes. Corban Knight beat him with a tipped shot late in the second period to make it 4-0, but UNO scored two third-period goals before Danny Kristo came in alone for the game-clincher with 1:18 left.
For the weekend, Belfour posted a .931 save percentage and a 2.23 goals-against average while playing for the first time since Jan. 21, 2012.
Good enough, maybe, to possibly make one wonder why Belfour hasn’t been on the ice more often.
“You wonder a little, ‘Maybe they don’t like me,’” Belfour said, laughing. “But that’s not the case here. My coaching staff has supported me to the end, and my teammates have supported me to the end.”
The son of Ed Belfour, the two-time NHL Vezina Trophy (best goalie) winner, Dayn redshirted one season at UNO after going 8-2-4 with a 3.06 GAA and .895 save percentage for the USHL’s Fargo Force in 2009-10.
He appeared in six games last year — four of them starts — going 2-1-2 with a 2.55 GAA and .902 save percentage. Both of his wins came in relief, including his 54-second appearance against Minnesota State-Mankato after Ryan Massa suffered a concussion and the Mavs followed with a quick overtime goal.
Belfour started the following night, gave up three goals in a 5-4 loss and wasn’t seen again — other than the exhibition game — until Friday.
In the offseason, Massa announced he would sit out the season, Faulkner came back for a fifth season and Anthony Stolarz arrived on campus as a heralded second-round NHL draft pick.
Faulkner and Stolarz split time during the first semester, with Faulkner getting a few extra starts. Stolarz bolted for major junior hockey the first week of January.
Blais had frequently mentioned Faulkner, Stolarz and Belfour as being close to equal, and had begun hinting that Belfour was due to make a start in recent weeks, including two weeks ago at Bemidji State.
But Faulkner had played nine straight games before Friday.
“Earlier in the week Coach said a few words that kind of hinted at me maybe starting, and I appreciate that because I liked getting a little bit of a heads-up,” Belfour said. “But I just prepared every practice day like I normally do, went through my normal routines, and approached it as if I was playing.
“Luckily I did start, and I had a great time out there.”
Faulkner is one of the winningest goalies in the country at 14-6-2 and is one win away from tying Dan Ellis as UNO’s all-time leader at 53 victories. Faulkner’s rough start Saturday, though, dropped his GAA to 2.84 and his save percentage to .892.
“He’s one heck of a goaltender,” Belfour said. “I love the way he plays. He’s a battler who throws it all on the line every night, and he definitely deserves and has earned all the games he’s played. He’s someone I admire, and competing with him in practice makes me better.”
Blais said getting Belfour some work will help both the sophomore’s confidence and Faulkner’s stamina as the Mavs head into their final six games of the regular season.
In the meantime, Belfour will probably keep doing what he’s been doing for most of the last two years.
“If you maintain your health off the ice and are always exercising, that’s going to help,” Belfour said. “But games are different from practice.”
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