HARTFORD – There is something about playing against the best teams in the country that brings out the best in UConn.
The Huskies are now 3-1-1 against ranked opponents this season, riding goals from Johnny Austin and Spencer Naas to a 2-1 win over No. 11 Vermont Friday night at the XL Center.
UConn (3-5-4, 2-2-1 Hockey East) is 3-1-1 against ranked opponents, topping Vermont, No. 15 Quinnipiac and No. 3 Boston College while tying No. 5 Boston University. The lone loss: a 2-1 loss to the Catamounts in Burlington on Oct. 25.
A car fire on the Founders’ Bridge slowed the arrival of the crowd, but 5,072 fans were able to make it to Hartford Friday night, most of them in time to see Austin open the scoring with a shot from the point. Freshman forward Jeff Wight was able to get the puck back to Austin at the blue line, and the freshman Minnesotan fired the shot past Vermont goaltender Mike Santaguida.
Vermont tied it up 3:52 into the second period through Anthony Petruzzelli. The Huskies were unable to clear the puck out of the zone, and Petruzzelli found an open lane, beating Nichols for his first career goal.
Seven minutes later, UConn took the lead for good, thanks to some fantastic individual play from Naas.
The freshman forward chip the puck past a Vermont defenseman to gain the offensive zone and wrapped around the net. After firing a pass to Kasperi Ojantakanen, Naas got into position next to the net, right in the path of the puck after Santaguida deflected Jacob Poe’s shot. All Naas had to do was tap the puck into the open net for his third goal of the season.
"Spencer has played very well for us," head coach Mike Cavanaugh said. "He skates extremely well, that’s probably his greatest asset. But it’s not surprising to me. Even in Minnesota high school, Spencer scored 30 goals a year.
"So it was a goal scorer’s goal because he was around the net and his stick was on the ice. I’m not sure if he knew it was coming there, but his stick was on the ice, and good things happen when your stick’s on the ice. I think his whole line gave a great effort tonight, with Kasperi and Jesse Schwartz – all freshmen. They did a really nice job."
For Naas and Austin, being the two players to score in such a big game has added meaning. Natives of Minnetonka and St. Louis Park, Minnesota, respectively, Naas and Austin were teammates at Benilde St. Margaret High School, and they have been playing together for longer than that. They were not a package deal when they committed to UConn, but they cannot be happier with the way things turned out.
"We’re best friends. We pretty much do everything together," Austin said. "To score, that’s one thing. But to have him score as well, that’s a whole ’nother thing. There’s nothing I can wish more than for him to score. I mean, he scores and I’m happy."
With the lead entering the third period, UConn continued to take the game to Vermont. Despite, at times, looking like they were holding on for dear life, the Huskies outshot the Catamounts 10-5 in the third period.
With 90 seconds to play, Santaguida began trying to get to the bench, but the Huskies’ puck pressure in the neutral zone made that impossible. Twice he tried to make a break for it, but UConn quickly gained possession of the puck, even nearly getting in for a third goal.
Santaguida finally got to the bench with 27 seconds left, but it was for naught. Vermont did not have enough time to get a clear look.
"More importantly (than outshooting Vermont in the third), we didn’t give a lot up in front of the net, second chances," Cavanaugh said. "And two minutes left to go in the game after they called the timeout, I’m not sure if we gave a shot up on net, and really we didn’t allow them to pull their goalie and get the extra attacker. We stayed on our toes and we competed pretty hard tonight."
UConn does not have a lot of time to sit on this win, no time, actually. The Huskies are back at the XL Center Saturday afternoon to face No. 3 BU, looking to improve on the 4-4 tie they managed at Agganis Arena on Nov. 8.
Normally, UConn gets a 24-hour rule for celebrating wins and reflecting on losses and ties. With the game Saturday, the rules have changed.
"Tonight, it’s 24 minutes," Cavanaugh said. "Because we have BU coming in here tomorrow…and it’s the first time we’ve played back-to-back since Penn State. And the first time, we didn’t respond very well. We know we have an excellent club coming in here, probably, maybe the top in the NHL Draft in Jack Eichel, and David Quinn’s an outstanding coach.
"I know that they’ll come in here ready to go. They’re certainly not going to take us lightly. We played them well last time at 4-4 at BU. We’ll have our hands full, but I have a lot of confidence in those guys in that room that we’ll come out and we’ll compete hard tomorrow."