The University of New Mexico hockey team qualified for the ACHA National Championships for the first time in the program's history, and got off to a great start in group play when it faced off against Central Florida.
New Mexico had not played a game that counted toward its record in over five weeks when it blanked the Colorado School of Mines 8-0 back on Feb. 5, but showed no signs of rust when it hit the ice on Tuesday afternoon.
Central Florida had a couple of early power play chances but the Lobos were able to effectively kill two penalties and get back to full strength. But the Golden Knights were still able to strike first, notching a goal off the stick of forward Bradley Perlman with 8:57 left to play in the first period.
The Golden Knights led 1-0 after one period of play and were in New Mexico's zone looking to add another, but goalie James Bostian was able to protect the net. The Lobos were able to clear the puck and got the break they needed after a Central Florida player lost control of the puck and UNM center Jaxson Farnholtz buried a shot to tie things up early in the second period.
Moments later, senior defenseman Mackenzie Smith wound up and blasted a shot past Jason Thirkell for UNM's second goal in just 37 seconds and up the Lobos up 2-1.
Brandon Blaszczyk was able to get the equalizer for Central Florida as the Golden Knights continued to pepper the UNM goal with shot attempts and finally crack the defense of Bostian.
Things remained tied after two periods of play — despite Central Florida having a brief 5-on-3 power play — as New Mexico continued to show great effectiveness playing short-handed.
UNM left wing Austin Short said the Lobos were outshot in the game 53-36 and UCF played in New Mexico's zone for much of the game, but his teammate between the pipes had an unbelievable goal keeping performance.
Short said Bostian played a fantastic game, adding that his goalie making so many big saves gave the team a lot of confidence.
And that confidence was on display in the early part of the third period. After Central Florida fired a shot over the post, UNM freshman Chance Shanks got a steal and made a move to cross up Thirkell and slip a third Lobo goal past the keeper to give New Mexico a 3-2 lead.
But the Golden Knights evened things up again when forward Drew Bengtson made the score 3-3 by threaded a needle to get a shot past Bostian with just 6:48 remaining in the final period.
Despite some good chances by both squads, the score remained knotted up after 60 minutes of play and the game moved to overtime in search of a winner. Central Florida outshot New Mexico 50-31 in regulation.
With under four minutes remaining in overtime, Graeme Chiasson fired a shot that forced Thirkell to go down to the ice and try to go for the cover. But it was New Mexico that garnered the loose puck and set up an almost identical look from and even closer distance — and Chiasson made the most of the second chance, beating the goalie for the game-winner.
The 4-3 overtime win gave the Lobos the first win in pool play and a great way for the Lobos to kick things off in the national tournament. If New Mexico is able to notch a win on Thursday, it would be assured of the opportunity to win the group outright when it faces Michigan State the following day.
"I couldn't have really asked for a better experience," Short said about how the game compared to what his expectations were going into nationals. "Getting that first win was obviously huge."
The team captain said Grant Harvey, the team's head coach, had the team ready to play — saying Harvey is an emotional leader and probably couldn't be happier with the result.
"He's a good motivator," Short said. "He knows how to give us speeches to get everybody riled up and ready to go and I would say it was definitely a very emotional day for him."
But New Mexico didn't come all the way to Columbus, Ohio just to enjoy the experience or even to get satisfied by picking up a solitary win. Short said the team had already shifted its focus to its next opponent — he and his teammates were watching the Quinnipiac Braves’ opening match to see what they were up against.
The team captain said he was impressed by the speed of the Braves, but seemed eager for the challenge and the potential chance to pick up two early wins in UNM's draw. The Lobos will play Quinnipiac on Wednesday at 12:30 p.m., looking for a win which could be a giant step toward advancing UNM to the next round. If Bostian is able to duplicate his defensive efforts in front of the net, then the Lobos should have a chance to go far.
Robert Maler is the sports editor for the Daily Lobo. He primarily covers basketball, football and tennis. He can be contacted at email@example.com or on Twitter@Robert_Maler.