BRIDGEPORT – Coming from behind to beat the defending national champion sounds like an accomplishment worthy of celebration. That is not the case for the UConn men’s hockey team, following a 3-2 come-from-behind win over Union Saturday in the Frozen Holiday Classic.
"There’s not a lot of celebrating in the locker room, which I like," head coach Mike Cavanaugh said. "That means, to me, that our program is making strides, because our kids aren’t happy with just beating Union. Maybe that was the way years ago. But yea, sure, we’re happy any time we get a win, but we came here to win a trophy."
UConn (4-8-4) had to withstand a lot of offensive pressure from Union (9-7-1) early in the game, but it was the Huskies who struck first. Jacob Poe found Patrick Kirtland drifting into the zone unmanned and put the puck right in front of the Rocky Hill native, who knocked in his third goal of the year with 16:25 gone in the first period.
The Huskies took the lead into the break, but Union got two back early in the second on quick, successive power plays. Daniel Ciampini pushed the puck past goaltender Rob Nichols just over a minute before Mike Vecchione beat the helpless goaltender with a sensational shot from near the left circle.
From that point on, Nichols was a man possessed, finishing with 37 saves in one of his more impressive performances of the season, one that comes at the end of a three-week break.
His biggest save may have come five minutes into the game. Union’s Matt Wilkins dished the puck to Michael Pontarelli across the slot. Pontarelli got a shot off, but Rob Nichols got enough glove on the puck to deflect it off the post and in position for him to cover it.
"You know, he was the one kid when we came back Christmas night, some of the guys were a little rusty…but Robby wasn’t," Cavanaugh said. "He was dialed in at practice that day…He’s been that way all season long."
It looked like UConn would not be able to get the tying goal thanks to a fantastic effort in net from Union goaltender Colin Stevens, who finished the night with 33 saves. Fifteen minutes after Union took the lead, however, UConn’s Cody Sharib got on the end of a pass off the boards from Joey Ferriss and beat Stevens with a backhand shot through the goalie’s legs.
Spencer Naas was in the right place at the right time for the winner with 10:13 to play in the third. The freshman was wide open on the far side of the goal while pressure from Corey Ronan and Kasperi Ojantakanen pulled Stevens toward the puck-side post. Ojantakanen was able to push the puck through the slot to Naas, who fired it into the open net.
"(Ojantakanen) made a great look," Naas said. "Perfect pass, right on my tape, and I just had to put it in. It was a perfect pass and a great forecheck by Corey."
The key down the stretch for the Huskies was their ability to settle down on the penalty kill after the Dutchmen struck twice on the man advantage. Late in the third period, UConn found itself defending a 4-on-3 and unable to clear the puck out of the zone. But the Huskies held their own, eventually poking the puck out on a last-ditch effort as Poe prepared to come out of the box and bring the Huskies back to even strength.
Despite going 0-for-6 on their power play chances, including a five-minute advantage that began with 5:35 to play, UConn held Union on their final four power play chances of the night, three of them in the third period.
"I thought we got overextended a couple of times," Cavanaugh said. "One time, they dropped it down to Ciampini on the puck that trickled in. The second one, we got overextended. We weren’t in the shot lane, and the puck had eyes…so we tried to stay more in the shot lanes and attack rebounds."
After a three-week break, UConn has a quick turnaround. The Huskies will be back in Webster Bank Arena Sunday night at 6 p.m. to face No. 7 UMass Lowell in the championship game of the Frozen Holiday Classic. The River Hawks (11-3-3), who reached the championship by way of a 5-1 win over Sacred Heart Saturday, were the Huskies’ last opponent before the break, holding on for a 6-4 win in Hockey East play on Dec. 3.
Despite walking away with no points, getting four goals was a boost for a UConn team that struggled offensively to that point. A team that averaged 1.57 goals per game through its first 14 games now has seven in its last two.
The difference: the Huskies realize what kind of team they need to be offensively.
"Earlier in the year, we were a little too cute," Cavanaugh said. "Sometimes you have to know your role and what kind of team you are. We’re a type of team that has to pound pucks to the net, create turnovers with our speed and just get them to the net and score some greasy goals and rebound goals…That’s the type of team we have to be. I think when our guys, now they’re starting to understand that."