DURHAM, N.H. — Two weeks ago, the UConn men’s hockey team dropped both games of a home-and-home series with New Hampshire, getting outscored by a total of 9-2. As the teams met up for the Huskies’ first ever Hockey East tournament appearance, the Wildcats picked up right where they left, capitalizing on their special teams play to grab a 5-2 win in the first game of the three-game quarterfinal.
Despite the similar result, head coach Mike Cavanaugh believed his team turned in a much better performance than their previous matchup with the Wildcats, a 5-1 loss on Feb. 21st.
“I thought we played a much better game than we did two weeks ago up here. I was pretty happy with our kids effort,” Cavanaugh said. “Especially when we were down 4-0, I thought we chipped away and played hard and competed and made a game of it.”
After a UNH goal that deflected off the stick of the Wildcats’ Tyler Kelleher, off UConn goalie Rob Nichols, and then off Huskies defender Kyle Huson to take the early 1-0 lead 4:38 into the first period. New Hampshire then rattled off three power play goals before capping off their night on Grayson Downing’s empty netter with 45 seconds left to play.
UConn entered the Hockey East tournament ranked ninth in the conference with a penalty kill percentage of .808, and killed all three of New Hampshire’s power play opportunities during their two regular season matchups. However, the Wildcats managed to go 3-4 with the man advantage tonight for the first time since going 3-4 against Northeastern in 2013.
“I thought the difference in the game tonight was clearly special teams,” Cavanaugh said. “You’re not going to win many playoff games when the special teams game is 3-0 for the other team.”
Downing scored his first goal of the night just 70 seconds after Kelleher’s goal to extend the Wildcats lead to 2-0. Despite stringing together a couple of quality shifts during the middle of the period, UConn could only muster six shots on net.
The Wildcats opened up scoring in the second period at 8:12 with another pair of quick goals thanks to a tripping penalty from David Drake and a hooking penalty from Spencer Naas. Drake and Naas’ penalties gave UNH the 5-on-3 advantage, and the Wildcats wasted no time scoring, as Matt Willows received a pass from Downing and beat Nichols to make it a 3-0 UNH lead. Just 20 seconds later, Kelleher batted in a puck by his waist past Nichols for his second goal of the night.
“The stick might have went above him but it wasn’t above the net. He’s not the biggest guy,” UNH coach Dick Umile said of Kelleher, who stands 5-foot-6. “The kid’s a goal scorer, he gets an opportunity to score, they usually go in.”
UConn didn’t record it’s first shot of the period until more than halfway through but managed to make a dent in the Wildcat’s 4-0 lead on a goal from Spencer Naas with 6:28 left in the period. Naas tipped a shot from Shawn Pauly over the head of UNH goalie Danny Tirone to make it a 4-1 game.
The goal was Naas’ team-leading 13th of the season, and moved the Minnetonka, Minnesota native within one goal of tying Andrew Olson’s freshman scoring record of 14 goals. Naas is now tied Cole Schneider and Chris Myrho for second place.
Heading into the third period trailing 4-1, the Huskies managed to pull within two goals with 11:21 left to play after Joey Ferriss’ second goal of the season. Ferriss put a rebound from a Ryan Tyson shot past Tirone to make it 4-2. Downing’s empty netter at 19:15 would seal the Wildcats’ sixth consecutive win this season and 13th in a row against the Huskies dating back to 1964.
“Midway through the third we just needed to get pucks to the net and I just kind of just threw it blind center in front and Cody [Sharib] and Joey were there to bang it in,” Tyson said. “It was just a good play all around.”
With the loss, UConn is one game away from having their inaugural season in Hockey East come to an end. Despite the pressure of keeping their season alive, Cavanaugh believes his team will be able to adjust try to force a decisive third game Saturday night.
“It’s a three game series, not a one game series,” Cavanaugh said. “We have to build off of what I think we did well tonight and come back tomorrow and try and put forth that same effort and be better on special teams.”