The enormity of UAA's 5-2 victory over Lake Superior State on Saturday night cannot be overstated, nor was its significance lost on the Seawolves as they grind their way toward the Western Collegiate Hockey Association's postseason.
UAA's victory at Sullivan Arena, coupled with UAF's 4-1 loss to visiting Bowling Green, moved the Seawolves into solo eighth place in the 10-team league, two points ahead of UAF with four games left in the regular season.
Eighth place is a critical benchmark because only the top eight teams qualify for the playoffs.
Little wonder then the Seawolves (11-16-3, 8-14-2 WCHA) were equally relieved and revitalized by their three-goal third period, which helped them rebound from Friday's anguishing 3-2 loss to the Lakers.
"Massive. Massive,'' said Seawolves bench boss Matt Thomas. "I don't know if it alleviates any of the pressure going into the next two weekends, but it keeps us from being on life support.''
Seawolves sophomore center Matt Anholt, who scored two third-period goals, was no less decisive in his appraisal.
"If we don't get these two points,'' he said, "it's maybe the season.''
While a loss would not have eliminated the Seawolves from the playoffs, victory kept them two points behind seventh-place Lake Superior State and two points above the rival Nanooks.
UAA this week entertains league-leading Minnesota State-Mankato and then closes the season with two road games against UAF. That series doubles as Games 3 and 4 of the annual Governor's Cup and look increasingly like it might determine the last playoff berth on the circuit.
The springboards to UAA's win Saturday were myriad on a night when Thomas juggled all four of his forward lines.
Freshman center Nils Rygaard's third-period deflection furnished the game-winning goal. Anholt padded the lead to 4-2 with a bullet of a wrister off the rush and added an empty-net insurance goal.
Defenseman Chase Van Allen contributed a career-high three points, all assists, with helpers on Rygaard's goal and Anholt's insurance strike. Defenseman Jarrett Brown scored a goal and an assist. Austin Azurdia scored a goal and drove the net to deliver distraction on Anholt's insurance goal.
Winger Anthony Conti won a crucial face-off, which led to Rygaard's goal. And sophomore goaltender Olivier Mantha stopped 21 shots.
Just as importantly, the Seawolves salvaged a tie game in the third period — UAA and Lake Superior were knotted 2-2 after 40 minutes — for the first time since early December. UAA was 0-6-1 in its previous seven games, including Friday's loss, that were tied in the third period.
The Seawolves and Lakers were deadlocked after two periods of trading goals — J.T. Henke for Lake Superior, Azurdia for UAA, Gage Torrel for Lake Superior and Brown for UAA.
With less than eight minutes to go, Conti won a face-off in the left circle of the Lakers zone. He pulled the puck back to Van Allen, who got off a quick wrister from the center point. Rygaard, who joined the Seawolves after the holiday break and began that sequence lined up on the inside hash-marks, got his stick on Van Allen's shot and deflected it past Nick Kossoff (23 saves) for his first college goal and a 3-2 UAA lead.
"I was more happy for the team, because it was just a big win for us,'' said the Swedish rookie.
Anholt followed 88 seconds later, cutting laterally across the high slot and roofing a wrister as Azurdia drove to the net to provide traffic.
"That's as much his goal as it is mine,'' Anholt said of Azurdia.
Anholt's goal also provided a measure of redemption for an uncharacteristic slashing penalty he took in the offensive zone late in the second period with the game tied at 2-2. Penalties in the offensive zone are seldom appreciated by coaches — and Anholt's the son of a coach.
"I was super, super frustrated with the way I played in the first 40 minutes, and very frustrated with the way some guys were playing, and I hold us to a high standard,'' Anholt said. "I was happy to help the team win in the third.''
Anholt banged a Rygaard rebound into an empty net — Rygaard had hit the right post with his bid — with less than three minutes to go to secure victory.
Senior center Blake Tatchell's principal assist on Brown's goal was the senior center's 101st career point, moving him past Chris LaVasseur and into 22nd place on UAA's all-time points list.
UAA went 0 for 4 on the power play — granted, Azurdia's goal came eight seconds after a man advantage expired — and is 4 for 75 in its last 20 games. Still, the Seawolves did not lose the special-teams battle — they killed both Lakers power plays.
"If your power play isn't scoring, you better not be giving up power-play goals,'' Thomas said.
UAA in a pregame ceremony honored Seawolves Hall of Famer Dennis Sorenson for his 500 wins as Dimond High's head coach and presented him with a Seawolves jersey bearing the number 500. Sorenson is UAA's No. 2 all-time leading scorer with 197 points. He dropped the ceremonial puck — comes naturally to him since he also referees.
Brown's goal and assist gives him the lead among UAA blueliners in goals and points with 5-10—15 totals in 28 games. Van Allen is first among Seawolves in defensemen in assists and second in points with 3-11—14 totals in 30 games.
Thomas used senior defenseman Chris Williams, a healthy scratch Friday, at right wing Saturday.
LSS 1 1 0 — 2
UAA 1 1 3 — 5
First Period — 1, LSS, Henke 9 (Hand), 11:05; 2, UAA, Azurdia 3 (Van Allen, Luedtke), 15:07. Penalties ?— Conti, UAA (interference), 2:00; Nenadal, LSS (tripping), 4:27; Schmitt, LSS (tripping), 8:50; McArdle, LSS (cross-checking), 12:59.
Second Period — 3, LSS, Torrel 7 (Cuglietta, Henke), 5:27; 4, UAA, Brown 5 (Tatchell, MacTavish), 12:35. Penalties ?— Anholt, UAA (slashing), 17:53.
Third Period ?— 5, UAA, Rygaard 1 (Van Allen, Conti), 12:16; 6, UAA, Anholt 6 (Van Allen, Brown), 13:44; 7, UAA, Anholt 7 (Rygaard, Roberts), 17:24 (en). Penalties — Conti, UAA (unsportsmanlike conduct), 5:31; Hand, LSS (unsportsmanlike conduct), 5:31; Torrel, LSS (slashing), 7:05; Conti, UAA (slashing), 12:51; Nenadal, LSS (roughing), 12:51; Hubbs, UAA (tripping), 16:12; Hayes, LSS (roughing), 16:12; Drapluk, LSS (game misconduct), 17:24.
Shots on goal ?— LSS 8-7-8—23. UAA 8-8-12—28.
Power-play Opportunities — LSS 0 of 2. UAA 0 of 4.
Goalies — LSS, Kossoff, (3-8-1) (27 shots-23 saves). UAA, Mantha, (10-14-3) (23 shots-21 saves).
A — 1,436. T — 2:25.
Referees — Chris Perrault, Dan Kovarik. Assistant referees ?— Travis Jackson, Dan Colliander.