NORTH ANDOVER, Mass. – Rob Nichols was a warrior Saturday night. Time and again, he kept UConn ahead, and the Huskies looked destined to win their first ever Hockey East game.
Destiny, however, has a funny way of having the last word.
Nichols saved a career-high 41 shots, but Merrimack finally bested him with 33 seconds to play and scored three minutes into overtime to hand UConn a 2-1 at Lawler Rink Saturday night.
Freshman David Drake's first career goal at the end of the first period came at the end of a successful 20-minute stretch for the Huskies. They played quick, aggressive hockey and persistently challenged Merrimack goaltender Rasmus Tirronen. Drake, a 2013 draft pick of the Philadelphia Flyers, put UConn ahead with 28 seconds left in the first with a powerful shot from the blue line.
"I thought David Drake did a great job tonight," UConn head coach Mike Cavanaugh said. "You know, that was his first college hockey game. And it wasn't just the goal. I thought his gaps were great. I thought his stick was good. He made strong plays. For his first game, and this is a tough environment to play in...I thought he handled it very well."
Drake's goal came at the most opportune time for the Huskies. Offense was not a thing that came easy for UConn after the first period. The Huskies spent most of the second and third periods backed up inside their own blue line.
Goaltender Rob Nichols stood strong for the Huskies in the second period, as Merrimack outshot the Huskies 15-3. The Warriors had closer to 20 chances in reality, but they missed the net a couple times when Nichols was caught out of position.
"I think we came out really well and we used our speed to our advantage," UConn captain Ryan Tyson said. "We really turned their D, and in our first three games that was our best start. I don't know what it was, but I think we might have gotten a little complacent."
Merrimack continued to control the play throughout the third period, and they were even more likely to score the later the game went.
Continuing their second period trend, however, the Warriors could not capitalize on even the greatest opportunities. For more than a minute, Nichols had to defend the net while his stick was lodged in the side. Play finally stopped when he accidentally dislodged the net trying to free his stick.
On a power play with six minutes to play, a Merrimack forward hit the post, which led to a rebound effort from the point and a violent scrum in the crease. Upon review, Merrimack did not equalize.
Chances continued to go by the wayside as time wound down on the Warriors. They hit the post at times, missed the net entirely even more.
But the lack of reward for their chances was mostly the fault of Nichols, who looked every bit as dominant as former UConn goaltender Matt Grogan at Schneider Arena in February, when the Huskies shocked No. 9 Providence.
"I thought Rob played fantastic," Tyson said. "He got bumped around there a lot at the end and made some huge saves to keep us right in it, and he did that last weekend as well. I think he's been real solid this year. We just have to play better in front of him at the end of games."
Tirronen went to the bench with 1:06 to play, and Merrimack tied it the game 33 seconds later. Freshman Brett Seney notched his second career goal on a rebound after a heroic effort from Nichols to keep the Warriors at bay.
This is the second time through three games that UConn has allowed a game-tying goal in the final minute this season. The Huskies were up 2-1 with 48 seconds to play when Penn State equalized in the season opener.
One of the reasons UConn struggled to get control was its struggle at the face-off circle. The Huskies won the face-off battle 16-9 in the first period, but Merrimack took control and ended the game with a 40-33 advantage.
"No matter where the face-off was, whether it was in the defensive zone, whether it was in the neutral zone or the offensive zone, they were winning the face-off and they had possession of the puck. And we weren't able to get anything on track," Cavanaugh said.
In the overtime, a couple quick possession changes put the puck on the stick of Hampus Gustafsson, who managed to beat Nichols from in close to give the Warriors the win.
UConn does not have a long time to reflect on Saturday's loss. Tuesday night, the Huskies go to Bridgeport for the first of what could be two meetings with in-state rival Quinnipiac at Webster Bank Arena.
But despite the loss, there are positives, and Cavanaugh was pleased with some aspects of the game.
"I think you always take positives out of every experience, and we've played a good first period on the road," Cavanaugh said. "Now we've got to build from that."