BRIDGEPORT – The UConn men’s hockey team that took the ice Tuesday night looked a far cry from the team that was woefully outplayed at Merrimack Saturday.
Again, the Huskies were outshot. Again, they did not challenge the goaltender often. But this time, the Huskies’ bend-but-don’t-break style of hockey was rewarded in a big way, as UConn skated to a 4-1 victory over No. 15 Quinnipiac at Webster Bank Arena.
"I think this was the first game that we competed and played a complete game for 60 minutes," head coach Mike Cavanaugh said. "The thing I was most proud of with our guys is that…we talked all week about being a team that plays on our toes and not on our heels. I was really proud of the effort tonight."
Once again, Rob Nichols stepped up for UConn. After making a career-high 41 saves Saturday night, he was called upon again Tuesday, this time stopping 36.
The only blemish on Nichols’ stat sheet Tuesday was a goal 43 seconds into the second period. Quinnipiac’s Sam Anas was credited with the goal after the puck kicked off his skate and hit a UConn player’s stick before ricocheting into the net.
In front of Nichols, the defense was sound. The Huskies looked to be more organized defensively than they did against Merrimack, allowing Nichols to see the puck better.
"We got pucks deep," Nichols said of the difference in the defense from Saturday. "We were blocking a lot of shots. We tried to eliminate their time and space, really. That was the big difference, I thought."
Anas’ early goal in the second came after a two-goal first period by the Huskies, which was highlighted by what proved to be a crucial goal from Trevor Gerling that made it 2-0 Huskies with less than a minute remaining.
Spencer Naas played the puck behind Quinnipiac’s net, where Shawn Pauly corralled it and tried to beat Quinnipiac goaltender Michael Garteig with a wraparound. Garteig got his pads in front of the puck, but pushed it right to Gerling, who tapped in the second goal with a backhand shot.
Gerling's goal was preceded by the first goal of Evan Richardson's UConn career. The Boston College transfer tipped in a shot from Jacob Poe on a power play with about five minutes to play in the first period.
Richardson centered a line with junior left wing Patrick Kirtland and freshman right wing Corey Ronan, which proved to be an excellent combination from Cavanaugh. Ronan and Richardson were explosive breaking out of the neutral zone, pulling defensemen into the corners and creating space for scoring chances.
One of those chances came late in the second, when Ronan was against the corner boards with two Quinnipiac defenders. That left Kirtland wide open in the slot, and Ronan found him for a quick one-timer that beat backup goalkeeper Sean Lawrence low on the glove side.
"He skates well. He’s got a high motor, and he plays the game with a lot of passion and energy," Cavanaugh said of Ronan. "Sometimes, he maybe plays too fast, and once he kind of slows down a little bit and feels a little more comfortable, I think, he’s going to be a terrific player for us the next four years."
That goal came minutes after a defensive shift that could have easily resulted in a Quinnipiac equalizer. UConn spent nearly two minutes defending, unable to clear the puck. At that point, Quinnipiac looked set to turn the tide, but UConn finally cleared. Not long after, it was 3-1.
"I think on the road, you’re always going to come across storms," Gerling said. "I think it’s just our team’s ability to stay together, and just weather them. We bend, but we don’t break. We were strong in the D-zone, and we were just making sure to get pucks out."
Throughout the third period, Quinnipiac pressed for goals, trying everything possible in the offensive end to get goals, but the Huskies withstood the storm.
The Huskies were particularly effective on the forecheck, and part of that was because of the play of Ryan Segalla, a defenseman who played left wing at full strength Tuesday.
Cavanaugh was pleased with how the Pittsburgh Penguins’ draft pick played at left wing Tuesday night, especially late in the final period, when Quinnipiac pulled their goalie and UConn could not get the puck out of the zone. Segalla was able to pressure the puck and force a clearance, which got new skaters on the ice and set Jesse Schwartz up for the empty-net goal to make it 4-1.
Segalla’s shift to left wing paid dividends for UConn’s forecheck, but he also showed his interchangeability, shifting to defenseman on both the power play and the penalty kill.
"I think a lot of teams talk about versatility," Cavanaugh said, "and you talk about it a lot in other sports…in hockey you don’t see it as much. The fact that we have a kid who can do that is a luxury for us."
At the start of a trying week, which finishes Saturday with a Hockey East showdown at No. 17 Vermont, the Huskies learned a lesson Tuesday night; they learned how to win.
"I think against Merrimack, we were playing like not to lose the game once we had the lead, and tonight, we were playing to win when we had the one-goal lead, the two-goal lead," Gerling said. "They score, we were staying on our toes and going after them. We talked about taking this obstacle head on and just going at them. I think we did a great job doing that tonight for 60 minutes."