Fontenault: Nichols’ Night

After the UConn men’s hockey team was eliminated from the Hockey East tournament Saturday by New Hampshire in a 2-0 loss, I asked Mike Cavanaugh if he could have asked for anything else out of Rob Nichols.

Upbeat as always, the Huskies’ head coach turned to his goaltender and jokingly said, “You should have stopped those two, Rob.”

Nichols was not in the joking mood. The sophomore sat slouched in his chair, staring blankly at nothing in particular. It was understandable. The Huskies’ season had just come to an end, and he was the guy in net when it happened.

But no one could have asked for more out of Nichols.

The Texas native made a career-high 42 saves Saturday night in the loss. It took UNH 36 shots to finally put one past Nichols, and that would have easily been called goaltender interference.

Nichols had far less work to do than Matt Grogan did last season, when he set a school record with 58 saves in a 3-2 win over No. 9 Providence. His performance, however, was legendary. UConn, the new kids in Hockey East who were picked to finish last, had a chance to force a decisive third game because of a ridiculous performance from Nichols.

Of course, this was nothing out of the ordinary for a goalie who is second in the nation in total saves, finishing the year with 1,052.

“He was outstanding. He’s been that way all year long,” Cavanaugh said. “He’s been solid all year long. And he’s a member of our team. That’s why when some people say, ‘They’ve got a great goalie, but I don’t know how good their team is,’ I don’t buy that, because your goaltender is part of your team.”

UNH could have piled on the goals in the second period, when the Huskies had to kill four penalties in quick succession. The Wildcats scored three power play goals in Game 1 Friday and outshot UConn 19-3 in the second period Saturday.

No chance was better than when UNH’s Grayson Downing got into the slot with what looked like an open goal. He looked ready to celebrate as soon as he shot the puck. Nichols robbed him, lunging across the crease and flashing the glove, effectively silencing the Whittemore center.

The UNH student radio broadcaster turned to me and between declarations of disbelief on air mouthed the word “wow.”

After the game, the student radio announcers and the writers from the New Hampshire expressed their amazement at how good Nichols was in Game 2. When I told them that this was normal, especially earlier in the season – when UConn beat Boston College, Vermont, Union UMass Lowell and Quinnipiac – they did not question it.

Nichols has two more years at UConn. That is two more years of protecting the net for a team that is only getting better, as well as two more years working with former NHL goaltender Andrew Raycroft.

“He’s an excellent player,” Cavanaugh said. “He’s certainly a solid…part of our foundation moving forward. I’m glad we have him for two more years.”

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