This season that began most promisingly for the Seawolves ended most painfully Saturday night – their rivals sent them packing.
UAF's 3-2 victory over UAA at the Carlson Center in Fairbanks snatched the Western Collegiate Hockey Association's final playoff spot from the Seawolves and snuffed their season.
The Nanooks, whose 3-2 victory Friday clinched them the Governor's Cup for the seventh straight season, went 3-0-1 against their rivals this season. They head to Houghton, Michigan, to play Michigan Tech, the No. 1 seed, in a best-of-3, first-round series in which the winner advances to the Final Five.
The Seawolves simply head home, undone by a second half of the season in which they went 3-13-0. That's two straight seasons they have failed to make the playoffs – only the top eight finishers in the 10-team circuit qualify for the postseason.
Saturday marked the end of the line for four UAA seniors – center Blake Tatchell, defensemen Austin Sevalrud and Chris Williams, and jack-of-all trades Blake Leask.
UAA (11-20-3, 8-18-2) needed to win Saturday to clinch a playoff spot and came frustratingly close – "One play away,'' said Seawolves bench boss Matt Thomas. UAF (10-20-4, 8-16-4 WCHA) needed just a tie.
The teams produced a game similar to their three previous meetings this season, and 11 straight meetings dating back to the 2014 playoffs – taut, tense and excruciatingly close. Of the last 11 UAA-UAF games, 10 have been decided by one goal and one was a tie.
UAA was thwarted by UAF captain Tyler Morley, who returned for the series after missing six games with injury. Saturday, the senior center scored the Nanooks' first two goals and won the faceoff that led to defenseman Justin Woods' game-winning strike six minutes into the third period.
"He was definitely the difference,'' Thomas said by cellphone. "Not to take anything away from the rest of their guys, or our guys – everyone battled – but he was the difference-maker.''
Nanooks goaltender Davis Jones gave the Seawolves fits too. He stopped 19 shots Saturday and 47 of 51 on the weekend, and combined with Jesse Jenks to deliver a daunting .945 team save percentage against the Seawolves this season.
UAA sophomore Olivier Mantha made 27 saves Saturday and gave his club a chance to win each of the four games against UAF. He posted a strong .922 save percentage against the Nanooks this season.
UAA never led Saturday, and it never stopped grinding to get a lead.
Morley furnished UAF a 1-0 lead late in the first period with a lovely deflection. Cutting right to left through the slot, the left-shooting Morley reached behind to redirect Nick Hinz's bid from the left wing through Mantha's wickets before the goalie could snap together his pads.
UAA junior Connor Wright of Anchorage delivered the equalizer 77 seconds into the second period when his shot from the bottom of the right circle hit Morley's skate and ricocheted past Jones. Two of Wright's four career goals have come against UAF – he scored in a 1-1 tie in Anchorage in December.
Morley restored UAF's lead at 2-1 on a gorgeous power-play goal late in the second period. Defenseman Josh Atkinson's stretch pass sprung Nolan Huysmans with speed into the Seawolves zone on right wing and Huysmans whipped a centering pass to Morley, who was blazing toward the left post. Morley steered the feed behind Mantha for his team-leading 16th goal, which marked his 58th career goal and sixth in 13 career games against UAA.
Yet UAA freshman Alex Jackstadt generated a 2-2 tie less than three minutes into the third period off helpers from Leask and Tatchell. Two of Jackstadt's three goals have come against the Nanooks – he scored his first career goal on a penalty shot in UAA's 2-1 loss to UAF in December.
Then Morley showed another facet of his game that makes him the best player on either team. His faceoff win against Tatchell set up Woods' bomb from the point.
Woods, a sophomore from Fairbanks, returned to UAF this fall after missing last season while undergoing cancer treatment. Of his five goals this season, four have come in the last four games, including one Friday and Saturday's playoff-delivering strike.
UAA 0 1 1 2
UAF 1 1 1 3
First Period – 1, UAF, T. Morley 15 (Hinz), 18:43. Penalties – Van Allen, UAA (interference), 15:04.
Second Period – 2, UAA, Wright 4, 1:17; 3, UAF, T. Morley 16 (Huysmans, Atkinson), 14:10 (pp). Penalties – UAF bench minor, served by Basara (too many men), 7:13; Hubbs, UAA (slashing), 13:46.
Third Period – 4, UAA, Jackstadt 3 (Leask, Tatchell), 2:40; 5, UAF, Woods 5 (T. Morley, Peterson), 5:58 Penalties – Huysmans, UAF (unsportsmanlike conduct), 6:05; Ege, UAA (slashing), 6:05; Wright, UAA (boarding), 19:39; Munson, UAF, major-game misconduct (face-masking), 20:00; Woods, UAF, major-game misconduct (face-masking), 20:00; Jones, UAF (leaving the crease), 20:00; Kozun, UAA, minor-major-game disqualification (high-sticking, fighting), 20:00; Azurdia, UAA, double minor-misconduct (roughing), 20:00; Leask, UAA (misconduct), 20:00.
Shots on goal – UAA 8-3-10—21. UAF 12-9-9—30.
Power-play Opportunities – UAA 0 of 1. UAF 1 of 3.
Goalies – UAA, Mantha, 10-18-3 (30 shots-27 saves). UAF, Jones, 5-12-1 (21 shots-19 saves).
A – 3,665 (4,595). T – 2:46.
Referees – John Lupinek, Brett Klosowski. Assistant referees – David Tise, John Canoy.