Amid considerable chaos — a combined five third-period goals, two leads that vanished, a hostile atmosphere and odds that tilted against them as the pressure mounted Saturday night — the Seawolves conquered.
Facing elimination from the Western Collegiate Hockey Association playoffs for the second straight night at the Carlson Center in Fairbanks, UAA beat rival UAF, 5-4, to advance to the league’s Final Five and extinguish the Nanooks’ season.
Sixth-seeded UAA became the only visiting team to triumph in the WCHA’s four best-of-3, first-round series and advanced to the Final Five for the third time in program history.
“The guys just believed,’’ UAA coach Matt Thomas said by cellphone. “The people who are getting it done are the guys in the jerseys, and they delivered.’’
The trip UAA (18-15-4) earned to Grand Rapids, Mich. — it will face league champion Ferris State (27-9-3) on Friday in a semifinal — marked the first time the Seawolves advanced to the Final Five after losing the opener of a playoff series.
In 2004, they won Games 1 and 3 at Wisconsin. In 2011, they swept at Minnesota.
This time around, they absorbed an excruciating 3-2 overtime loss to the third-seeded Nanooks (18-15-4) in Thursday’s opener before bouncing back for a 2-1 win Friday and then Saturday’s clincher.
Combined with their regular season-ending series in Fairbanks last week, the Seawolves won three of five games at the Carlson Center and took the season series, 4-3.
UAA’s season has been a campaign of resurrection. Thomas took over as bench boss in the offseason after Dave Shyiak was fired following eight losing seasons, and the newcomer was asked to rejuvenate a program that had endured 20 consecutive losing seasons.
While the 10-team WCHA is no longer the power conference it was for decades — the league’s perennial powers fled to two new leagues this season — there’s no discounting the difference Thomas has made since coming over from the Stockton Thunder of the ECHL, who he led to the Kelly Cup Finals last spring.
With essentially the same team that last season went 4-25-7 — save for a few of Shyiak’s incoming recruits — Thomas helped the Seawolves regain their resolve.
“He sees each of our qualities, and knows how to bring them out,’’ UAA senior goaltender Rob Gunderson said by cellphone. “I’ve never believed in a coach like I do in him. Every day, I want to play for that guy.’’
After their most explosive and experienced players — Gunderson (24 saves), senior center Matt Bailey, senior winger Jordan Kwas, senior winger Scott Allen, junior defenseman Austin Coldwell and red-shirt junior winger Brett Cameron — helped the Seawolves twice build leads, final glory went to a walk-on from Soldotna.
Brad Duwe shoveled home a cross-ice centering feed from sophomore center Blake Tatchell for the game-winner with less than three minutes to play. Duwe also forged the game-winning strike Friday, and he has furnished six goals in 26 games, prime production for a guy who didn’t crack the lineup until the seventh game of the season.
The Seawolves entered the third period leading 3-1, courtesy of second-period goals from Kwas, Bailey and Allen, which offset a power-play blast from UAF stud defenseman Colton Parayko.
Then things got seriously, well, serious in a game in which players sacrificed for victory — UAF was credited with 22 blocked shots, UAA with 21.
After each team had an apparent goal waved off, Alec Hajdukovich and Parayko scored to generate a 3-3 deadlock midway through the third. Coldwell countered with his fifth goal of the season, tops among UAA defensemen, for a 4-3 lead with less than seven minutes to go. A mere 84 seconds later, Hajdukovich, of Fairbanks, struck again for a 4-4 tie.
“I’ve never had such an emotional roller-coaster in my life,’’ Gunderson said.
Even as Gunderson surrendered four goals, though, Thomas said the senior furnished the foundation that allowed the Seawolves to flourish.
“You need a goaltender this time of year, and we’ve got one,’’ Thomas said. “He gives this team confidence and he didn’t get rattled when the puck was going in.’’
After Duwe’s goal gave the Seawolves their third lead of the evening, the Nanooks pulled Sean Cahill (17 saves) for an extra attacker in the final 70 seconds.
Bailey lost the first face-off in his zone, but won the next three, and the Seawolves celebrated.
The Nanooks, who had not lost consecutive home games since late November, last week won the Governor’s Cup over UAA for the fifth consecutive season, which means UAA’s seniors never clutched the Cup.
That wound was gaping, but the Seawolves salved it by qualifying for the Final Five, at the expense of its intrastate rival and on that rival’s home ice.
“They threw everything at us, and you’ve got to give them a ton of credit,’’ Thomas said. “At the end of the day, it’s just about winning, and that’s what we did.’’
Find Doyle Woody’s blog at adn.com/hockeyblog
UAA 0 3 2 — 5
UAF 0 1 3 — 4
First Period — None. Penalties — None.
Second Period — 1, UAA, Kwas 13 (Cameron, Tatchell), 1:09; 2, UAA, Bailey 20 (Allen), 5:00; 3, UAF, Parayko 6 (Kunyk, Beck), 16:04 (pp); 4, UAA, Allen 17 (Bailey), 19:46. Penalties — Erickson, UAF (elbowing), 4:53; Coldwell, UAA (elbowing), 4:53; Kunyk, UAF (cross-checking), 6:17; Perry, UAF (roughing the goaltender), 8:33; Coldwell, UAA (roughing), 8:33; UAA bench minor, served by Leask (too many men), 11:24; Bailey, UAA (tripping), 15:28.
Third Period — 5, UAF, Hajdukovich 3 (B. Morley, Quinn), 5:04; 6, UAF, Parayako 7 (Woods, Perry), 10:19; 7, UAA, Coldwell 5 (Cameron, Tatchell), 13;23; 8, UAF, Hajdukovich 4 (Quinn, Perry), 14:47; 9, UAA, Duwe 6 (Tatchell, Kwas), 17;15. Penalties — None.
Shots on goal — UAA 6-10-6—22. UAF 10-10-8—28.
Power-play Opportunities — UAA 0 of 1. UAF 1 of 2.
Goalies — UAA, Gunderson, 10-7-2 (28 shots-24 saves). UAF, Cahill, 10-6-1 (22 shots-17 saves).
A — 2,013 (4,595). T — 2:38.
Referees — Peter Friesema, Butch Mousseaux. Assistant referees — Carl Saden, John Conoy.
Around the WCHA
Ferris State 3, Bemidji State 2 (2 OT): Scott Czarnowczan’s short-handed goal five minutes into double overtime lifted the league champion Bulldogs to a series sweep and a berth in the Final Five.
After beating eighth-seeded Bemidji 8-0 Friday, Ferris State needed Ryan Lowney’s extra-attacker goal in the final minute of regulation just to get to extra time.
Czarnowczan scored on a shot from the left point — teammate Garrett Thompson, who assisted, had to duck to keep from getting hit in the head — that threaded traffic and went in the top left corner of the net.
Minn. State-Mankato 5, Northern Michigan 4 (OT): Zach Stepan closed his three-point night with the game-winning strike at 16:32 of overtime to give the second-seeded Mavericks a first-round sweep of the seventh-seeded Wildcats.
Stepan also furnished two assists. Bryce Gervais scored two goals for the Mavericks, including the game-tying goal in the third period. Minnesota State-Mankato never led until Stepan’s goal that advanced it to the Final Five.
Bowling Green 5, Michigan Tech 2: Ryan Carpenter’s four-point night and Adam Berkle’s two goals spearheaded fourth-seeded Bowling Green to a win over fifth-seeded Michigan Tech and a sweep of the first-round series.
Carpenter scored one goal and assisted on three others.
By DOYLE WOODY