FAIRBANKS — Momentum can be given or taken away. The Alaska Nanooks experienced both sides of the coin Friday night, when they opened a two-game series against Western Collegiate Hockey Association rival Lake Superior State at the Carlson Center.
The visiting Lakers took momentum away from the Nanooks midway through the first period when they negated the early lead Alaska built minutes into the contest. Then, later in the first period, Lake Superior State capitalized on a UAF turnover and turned it into a 2-1 lead.
That gave the Lakers all the momentum, and they held onto it the rest of the way en route to a 4-1 victory over the Nanooks.
“I thought we started OK, then all of a sudden you give up a special teams goal on the penalty kill and a bad turnover leads to a shorthanded goal against,” Alaska head coach Erik Largen said after his squad fell to 4-11-2 (4-6-1-1 WCHA). “That was a little deflating there, and I thought they took control of the game after that.”
It was the Nanooks who gained an edge early, with junior forward Kyle Marino giving the team a 1-0 lead 4:52 into the opening period. The right wing from Niagara Falls, Ontario, didn’t have much time to react to the play, as the puck squirted free into the low slot as he headed toward the net.
A Lake Superior State (8-6-1, 5-5-1-0 WCHA) player fell to his knees and slid in an attempt to get in the way of Marino’s shot, though the UAF upperclassman’s blast soared past him — and Lakers senior goaltender Nick Kossoff — to give the Nanooks an early lead.
“I just kind of got a lucky bounce,” said Marino, who noted the play wouldn’t have been possible had it not been for the effort of his linemates, sophomore Brennan Blaszczak and freshman Colin Doyle. “(Blaszczak) and Doyle were hard on the forecheck, and it just kind popped out. It was a gift, so you’ve got to put those in when you get them.”
As good as the Nanooks looked during the first half of the opening period — they were maintaining a strong forecheck and keeping Kossoff (22 saves) on his toes — everything changed 9:40 into the frame. That’s when Lake Superior State senior forward Diego Cuglietta beat UAF freshman netminder Gustavs Grigals for a Lakers power-play goal that tied it at 1.
Grigals (27 saves) got a piece of Cuglietta’s shot from the low slot, though the puck snuck through his arm and fell into the crease at his feet. The referee perched behind UAF’s net gave a “no goal” signal as Nanooks players frantically tried to clear the puck from the danger zone. Although it appeared the net was dislodged after the initial “no goal” call, the same referee signaled that the Lakers had scored amidst the chaotic flurry.
The Alaska players looked frustrated as they made their case, but the goal stood after the referees left the ice to review the play.
“The net got off, the puck went in,” Largen said. “I don’t know, it’s a judgment call by the referees. It’s frustrating it counts, but at the same time, it’s a part of the game. They’ve got to make decisions on the ice, too.”
Lake Superior State used its special teams to take a 2-1 lead less than 3 minutes later, though that goal came with some help from Alaska.
The Nanooks were working the puck around on a power play when it found the stick of junior forward Tyler Cline near the blue line. Cuglietta, the Lakers’ captain, got enough of his stick on the puck to poke it clear, setting him up with a breakaway bid against Grigals.
He put another shot through the freshman netminder’s arms to give the visitors control.
“They’re pretty good on the power play, so I was just trying to track him back and was lucky enough to get a stick under it,” Cuglietta said. “Then I had a lane and went for it.”
Lakers head coach Damon Whitten said he gives his players a green light to try to make a play on the penalty kill if they see a window.
“We want to be aggressive,” Whitten said. “It’s nothing about what (Alaska’s) doing, we want to look for those moments. It’s certainly a mindset that we want to look for those opportunities. If they present themselves, we want to take advantage.”
Largen said it’s not easy to see self-inflicted miscues play a pivotal role in the outcome.
“It’s beyond frustrating,” he said about giving up the shorthanded score. “It’s a puck decision that we have to be able to be stronger at. We’ve got to stick to the plan and be able to find a way to get that puck into the zone. We should also make sure we’re able to respond and bounce back after that.”
After taking a 2-1 deficit into the first intermission, the Nanooks didn’t respond in the second period. They were outshot 15-3 in the middle frame, but Laker Superior State wasn’t able to pad its lead until the third.
Junior defenseman Collin Saccoman made it 3-1 when he beat Grigals with a one-timer 9:34 into the final period. Another Lake Superior State upperclassman, senior forward Anthony Nellis, put home an empty-net goal with 32 seconds remaining, helping the Lakers start the critical series with three valuable points in the standings.
“It was a pretty solid 60 minutes for us,” Whitten said. “These are some huge, huge points.”
Aside from the play of the fourth line and Grigals, Largen said the Nanooks will have plenty to fix before the rivals close out the series at 7:07 p.m. today at the Carlson Center.
“We’ve got to be a harder team to play against,” he said. I felt like we fed into their game with some turnovers and defensive zone play. On the bright side, I thought (the fourth) line was really effective tonight and Grigals played really well in net. But there are some things we’ve got to clean up before tomorrow night.”
Contact News-Miner sports writer Brad Joyal at 459-7530. Follow him on Twitter: @FDNMSportsGuy.