MANKATO, Minn. — UNO struck back Saturday night, as Dominic Zombo’s third-period goal gave the Mavericks a 2-1 victory over Minnesota State-Mankato to tie their best-of-three WCHA playoff series at one game each.
The deciding third game is set for 7:07 p.m. Sunday at Mankato’s Verizon Wireless Center.
“It was a good, gutsy performance,” said UNO coach Dean Blais, whose team lost Friday’s opener 4-3 in a heartbreaking overtime game, then fell behind 1-0 halfway through the first period Saturday. “It would’ve been easy to throw in the towel, but we had the same kind of commitment and attitude as (Friday). Sometimes you lick your wounds after losing, but we didn’t.”
No. 20 UNO (19-17-2) snapped its five-game losing streak and also won for the first time in March in three seasons, ending a 12-game post-February skid. UNO, which hasn’t won a playoff series since 2000, had been 1-17 all-time in playoff road games and 0-5 in previous WCHA playoff games.
Senior John Faulkner made 34 saves to improve to 16-9-2 for the season and to earn his school-record 54th career win.
“Last night was a game where we put ourselves in a good position the whole time,” Faulkner said. “And even though the outcome wasn’t what we wanted, after the game we had a good attitude.”
Each team scored a first-period goal Saturday.
Then, after a scoreless second period, Zombo’s goal gave UNO a 2-1 lead with 14:29 left in regulation.
The Mavs took possession in the neutral zone, and eventually Zombo got a feed from Brian O’Rourke and then buried a low shot for his 11th goal of the season. It was Zombo’s fifth game-winner, tied for second in the Western Collegiate Hockey Association.
“It was a little STL connection,” Zombo said of the give-and-go between the sophomores from the St. Louis area. “I don’t know if I got all of it, but I got enough of it.”
Nos. 10 and 11 Minnesota State (23-12-3) scored first, jumping on a turnover and converting as Matt Leitner got his team-high 16th goal at 10:46 of the first period.
“It’s playoff hockey, so things aren’t always going to go your way,” said Faulkner, an assistant captain. “And it’s the sign of a good team that you have the ability to handle certain situations. We wanted to come out a little better, and we wanted to score the first goal, but we did a good job responding when we didn’t.”
MSU’s breakthrough came less than two minutes after a near goal by UNO’s Ryan Walters on a wraparound. Walters thought he had scored, but officials ruled that MSU goalie Stephon Williams had made the save and upheld the ruling after video review.
“It was tough,” Zombo said. “We played well (Friday), it’s just that a bounce here and a bounce there didn’t go our way. But we knew if we kept playing like we were that good things would happen.”
UNO tied the game as hard work by its “checking” line of freshmen Tanner Lane and Charlie Adams and sophomore James Polk resulted in Lane’s third goal at 14:17. Adams and Polk each picked up his first assist of the season.
“They played great,” Blais said. “Every time they were on the ice they were a threat in the offensive zone. They cycled the puck and gave us some minutes.”
Down the stretch, MSU pulled Williams for the final 1:45 for an extra attacker, but couldn’t even the game.
“Both goaltenders both made three or four saves that were difference makers,” Blais said. “Johnny obviously made some big saves at the end that we needed to seal the victory.”
Now, Blais said, the big decision is whether to start Faulkner for a third straight game in goal.
Faulkner handled the majority of the minutes in net all season, particularly once Anthony Stolarz left the program at the semester break. But then he started just twice as UNO went 2-6 down the stretch.
Backups Ryan Massa and Dayn Belfour are both on the 22-man travel roster.
“John was unbelievable,” Zombo said. “We had some down times in the game where John kept us in it. It was huge for him to get that win and huge for him to get that record. He really stood on his head.”
Faulkner was expected to learn Blais’ decision late Saturday or early Sunday.
“Coach is always fair about going with whoever he thinks gives us the best chance to win,” Faulkner said.
UNO (19-17-2) ........................... 1 0 1—2
MSU-Mankato (23-12-3) ........................... 1 0 0—1
First period: 1, MSU, Leitner 16 (Grant), 10:46. 2, UNO, Lane 3 (Adams, Polk), 14:17.
Third period: 3, UNO, Zombo 11 (O’Rourke, Megna), 5:21.
Shots on goal:
UNO ........................... 7 9 11—27
MSU-Mankato ........................... 9 13 13—35
Power plays: UNO 0-2, MSU 0-2. Penalties-minutes: UNO 2-4, MSU 2-4.
Goalies: UNO, Faulkner 16-9-2 (35 shots, 34 saves), 60:00. MSU, Williams 20-10-2 (29 shots, 27 saves), 58:15.