UNO was going for a sweep of the four-game season series against a Denver team playing without two potential All-Americans.
“You look over and notice they're not in the lineup, and it's almost a relief,” UNO star Josh Archibald said.
But the 18th-ranked Pioneers turned to a freshman goalie who hadn't played since the second weekend of the season. The visitors put together a strong checking game despite the absence of injured defenseman Joey LaLeggia and beat the Mavericks 4-1 Saturday night before 6,643 at the CenturyLink Center.
Evan Cowley, whose only previous appearance was a 3-2 loss to Alaska-Anchorage on Oct. 19, turned aside 33 shots for his first collegiate victory. The Pioneers have leaned heavily on senior Sam Brittain, the likely all-conference goalie who is among the national leaders in goals-against average and save percentage.
But UNO had earned a 4-2 victory in Friday's series opener — improving to 3-0 against both Brittain and the Pioneers — and coach Jim Montgomery went with another goalie for just the fourth time all season. Brittain had been in net for just less than 1,715 minutes — Cowley and fellow backup Greg Ogard had combined for just under 70 minutes.
“(Cowley) had a great week of practice, and we've always said that if you practice well, you're going to get an opportunity to play,” Montgomery said. “Part of it was we thought our team was relying too much on Sam, and we needed to play with a little more vinegar out there and a little more sandpaper.
“I think we did that, but Evan had to make several big saves and he controlled rebounds extremely well for us.”
Vinegar and sandpaper indeed.
“When you've got two All-Americans out of the lineup, there's a natural tendency to think, 'We beat them last night with them, we should be able to beat them easier tonight without them,' ” UNO coach Dean Blais said. “Not the case. Denver is a good hockey team, and its 'want' and battle level was real good tonight. Not that we let up or anything.”
Archibald had scored the game-winning goal in the first three meetings, but Denver kept the All-American candidate under wraps.
“It's tough to beat a team four times in a row,” Archibald said. “But give them credit, they were missing their top two guys and they won with pure heart and hard work.”
St. Cloud State and North Dakota both won Saturday to break away from the pack in the NCHC. St. Cloud State has 36 points and North Dakota 33. UNO sits in third with 30, while Denver is fourth with 29.
Denver's Nolan Zajac scored the game's first goal near the end of a hard-hitting first period. The former Omaha Lancer jabbed at the puck twice from the back post before getting it behind freshman goalie Kirk Thompson, who made his second straight start and stopped 15 shots.
UNO tied the game on Nick Seeler's shorthanded goal early in the second period. The sophomore defenseman simply stole the puck from Denver's Emil Romig near center ice, sped in alone on Cowley and beat him with a wrist shot to the far post — the goalie's stick side.
“I know Coach said there's a tendency to back off, but I don't think we did,” Seeler said. “I thought we battled hard. ... We just couldn't put the puck in the net (again).”
Like Brittain, Cowley is a fourth-round draft pick of the Florida Panthers — Brittain was selected in 2010, Cowley in 2013. He said he was ready to go, despite a layoff of nearly three months.
“I've played games before, and (preparation) is nothing new,” Cowley said. “I think I've done a good job of getting into routines and sticking to that this year and making sure I was prepared.”
Denver moved back in front 2-1 with 5:03 left in the second period, as a Daniel Doremus pass from behind the net popped into the air and freshman Trevor Moore, stationed at the post, took a baseball swing at it to club it into the net. The goal was reviewed for possibly being played with a high stick, but Moore appeared to have made a legal contact for his team-best 12th goal.
Denver made it 3-1 with 15:19 left as Thompson kicked a rebound into the slot and freshman Matt Marcinew pounced on it for his third goal of the season.
Defenseman Josiah Didier added an empty-net goal with 1:10 to go. The first goal of his career came in his 100th game.
“Every goalie is good, and every player is good in this league,” UNO's Seeler said. “It doesn't matter who's in net and who isn't, who's playing or who's not playing. It's up to us to determine the outcome, but unfortunately tonight was a loss.”
Denver (14-10-6, 8-7-3-2) .......................................... 1 1 2—4
At UNO (12-14-2, 9-7-2-1) .......................................... 0 1 0—1
First period: 1, DU, Zajac 3 (Larraza, Loney), 15:55.
Second period: 2, UNO, Seeler 4, 3:19 (sh). 3, DU, Moore 12 (Doremus, Shore), 14:57.
Third period: 4, DU, Marcinew 3 (Jacobson, VanVoorhis), 4:41. 5, DU, Didier 1, 18:50 (en).
Shots on goal:
Denver .......................................... 9 5 5—19
UNO .......................................... 13 12 9—34
Power plays: DU 0-4, UNO 0-5.
Penalties-minutes: DU 5-10, UNO 4-8.
Goalies: DU, Cowley 1-1 (34 shots, 33 saves), 59:09. UNO, Thompson 5-5-1 (18 shots, 15 saves), 58:58.