HARTFORD – Like there will be for every UConn home game at the XL Center, there was a giant Hartford Wolfpack logo at center ice Tuesday night. But the New York Rangers’ NHL affiliate would have had difficulty drawing 3,879 people for a Tuesday night game against their biggest rival, let alone Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute.
That is exactly what UConn did Tuesday night for the first of a three difficult home games over a five-day stretch. Despite 34 shots and another stellar performance from goaltender Rob Nichols, however, the Huskies could manage nothing more than a 1-1 tie.
The Huskies set the bar high in terms of home attendance at the opener Nov. 5, when 8,089 fans saw UConn beat then-No. 3 Boston College 1-0. More big crowds are expected this weekend. After nearly 4,000 Tuesday night, over 5,000 are expected Friday against No. 11 Vermont and even more – enough to open the upper bowl – will be at the XL Center Saturday against No. 3 Boston University.
"I thought that was a great crowd," UConn coach Mike Cavanaugh said. "It’s a Tuesday night game, playing RPI, and it’s not a league game or a foe…that a lot of the fans are familiar with. For 4,000 people to come out tonight, I was very happy with that support we got…It’s exactly what I expected from this fan base, and if we keep competing and putting forth that effort on the ice, I think they’ll just keep coming back and want to support our team."
RPI, despite its relative anonymity in the eyes of UConn fans, is no pushover. The Engineers (5-7-1, 4-2-0 ECAC) are in first place in their conference, a reward for two wins over defending national champion Union. They were also playing with a depleted roster, especially after losing center Mark Miller in the second period.
"By the middle of the second period, we were probably down four of our top eight forwards and two of our top four defensemen, so we had a real makeshift lineup in there tonight," RPI coach Seth Appert said.
The Engineers needed senior goaltender Scott Diebold to step up amidst an injury crisis, and he did just that.
Diebold was playing in only his third game of the year as the backup to Winnipeg Jets prospect Jason Kasdorf. With RPI playing its third game in five days, he got the nod and stopped 33 of UConn’s season-high 34 shots.
It was far from easy for Diebold. UConn put bodies in front of the net and did everything it could to disrupt the goaltender’s vision, and it almost produced a couple goals.
Almost by accident, Spencer Naas had a chance to give the Huskies the lead, tipping the puck toward Diebold as he jockeyed for position. The puck caught Diebold off guard, but he still managed to make the save.
"(The Huskies) were really good in front of me," Diebold said. "Our defense kept them to the outside, which was nice; so I got some outside shots. But the point shots, the guys really take your eyes away and get sticks on pucks. They’re very talented, so it made it tough."
The one goal he allowed was the product of hard work from junior Joey Ferriss, who had to battle against several poke-check attempts from the RPI defenseman, finally getting enough separation to challenge Diebold and beat him to the far side three minutes into the second period.
RPI tied the game up with 2.3 seconds to play in the second, thanks to the first career goal for freshman Drew Melanson. The left winger positioned himself on the end line, just offset from Nichols’ position in the net. Matt Neal collected the puck at the point and fired a hard pass down low. All Melanson had to do was push the puck in.
"That’s always a demoralizing goal when you give one up, especially with 2.3 seconds left," Cavanaugh said. "But our kids are pretty resilient. They have been all year long."
That resilience was best demonstrated late in the third period by David Drake.
UConn pressed hard for a goal throughout the third period, but late in the game, RPI had the Huskies pinned in their own end for more than a minute. Drake, a Philadelphia Flyers prospect, finally stepped out of position to get the puck and clear it out so UConn could change lines.
"He’s a kid who didn’t play the first couple games, and he has moved into a very prominent role with our team," Cavanaugh said. "He’s long. He has a very good stick. He moves the puck pretty well. He’s just going to keep getting better and better. He keeps working with (Maureen) Butler, our strength coach, I think he has a chance to be an outstanding defenseman for us here."
Weeks like this are new for UConn in its first year in Hockey East. Atlantic Hockey had its share of tough stretches – like playing Mercyhurst one weekend then going to Air Force the next – but three games in a five-day stretch against three nationally-recognized opponents will be new territory for the Huskies.
It is still just business as usual to Ferriss, though.
"I don’t think anything changes mentally for us," Ferriss said. "We have to come into every game knowing that if we’re not mentally prepared and physically prepared, you can lose. I think we can take the same mental approach, it’s just got to be that much sharper, I guess, this year."