OMAHA — After Friday’s game against the Wolverines, Nebraska-Omaha coach Mike Kemp pictured Michigan captain Eric Nystrom in his cap and gown on commencement day.
“Other than his mom and dad, I’ll probably be the next happiest guy to see him graduate,” Kemp said.
But the Mavericks’ coach isn’t a family friend or relative of Nystrom. Kemp was simply looking forward to facing a Michigan team without the senior, who has torched Nebraska-Omaha since his early days in Ann Arbor.
Throughout Nystrom’s career, the opportunity to play games against Nebraska-Omaha has been a gift that keeps on giving. Entering this weekend’s series against the Mavericks, Nystrom had scored 14 points in just 11 games against Kemp’s squad for an average of 1.27 points per game. In 137 games against all other opponents, he averaged less than half that figure.
The final chapter of Nystrom’s collegiate tenure in the Heartland held to form. The senior tallied two first-period goals in the Wolverines’ 6-4 win on Friday and notched an assist on Saturday at the Qwest Center, Nystrom showed flashes of brilliance and demonstrated why the Calgary Flames selected him in the first round of the 2002 NHL Draft. Before Friday, Nystrom’s last two-goal performance came in — you guessed it — Omaha on Dec. 13, 2003.
Nystrom opened the scoring on Friday three minutes into the first period. After a Nebraska-Omaha turnover, Nystrom picked up speed and skated into the slot, where he took a pass from junior Andrew Ebbett and went top shelf to beat Mavericks goalie Chris Holt.
After a wild eight minutes following Nystrom’s goal, Nebraska-Omaha led 3-2. But Nystrom’s second score knotted the game at three and helped change the momentum, as Michigan knocked in four of the game’s final five goals. With just over three minutes remaining in the opening frame and Michigan on the power play, Ebbett found freshman Chad Kolarik on the right side of the Mavericks’ net. Kolarik’s shot was stopped by Holt, but the rebound popped out on the left side to Nystrom, who chopped the puck over the line to tie the game. The second lamp-lighter marked Nystrom’s 100th career point at Michigan.
“I was just hacking and whacking on the power play,” Nystrom said. “That’s what I like to do, just stand in front and hack at anything there.”
The captain originally forgot to keep the puck from his 100th career point as a souvenir. After realizing that it was still being used as play continued, Nystrom kept a careful eye on the vulcanized rubber disc.
“The play went on, and I was hoping the puck wouldn’t get shot out of the rink,” Nystrom said. “When there was a whistle, I went out there and grabbed the puck.”
Said Kemp: “(Nystrom) certainly has been a guy who’s done a lot of damage to us over the years — not just points, but key goals, major goals. (Friday night), he got us again. He really brings his game against the Mavericks.”
Michigan coach Red Berenson admired Nystrom’s effort in all facets of the game on Friday, noting that the senior contributed to the Wolverines’ special teams play and the end result of the contest.
“(Nystrom) played terrific,” Berenson said. “He led our team the way a captain should. He was a warrior all the way through. I think he’s playing with more confidence and playing with a lot of authority.”
Nystrom himself is a bit confused about his offensive success against the Mavericks. Nevertheless, he’s content to sit back, remain tight-lipped and enjoy the statistical oddity.
“I can’t explain why it goes in against these guys, but it just does,” Nystrom said with a smile. “I don’t want to jinx it, so I don’t want to talk about it that much.”