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UConn plays 'championship hockey' in loss to No. 9 UMass Lowell

UConn did score until there were 13 seconds left and the game was out of reach, but Mike Cavanaugh was happy with the Huskies' overall body of work during a weekend that ended with a loss in the Frozen Holiday Classic championship game.

Dan Madigan

BRIDGEPORT – UConn may not have won the championship at the Frozen Holiday Classic Sunday night, but the Huskies played like champions in the eyes of their coach.

"For the first time since I’ve been here…I felt like our team played championship hockey for six periods," Mike Cavanaugh said following the Huskies’ 3-1 loss to No. 9 UMass Lowell. "I really believe we approached this weekend and played championship hockey."

UConn forward Spencer Naas and defenseman Jacob Poe were named to the all-tournament team along with Union forwards Ryan Scarfo and Mike Vecchione and Lowell defenseman Dylan Zink and goaltender Kevin Boyle. Zink, who scored the River Hawks’ opening goal Sunday, was named the tournament MVP.

Zink beat UConn goaltender Rob Nichols with a shot from above the right circle with two minutes to play in the first period. Nichols did not know there was a shot coming until the puck hit the net, thanks to a perfect screen by Lowell forward Terrence Wallin.

"I didn’t see it," said Nichols, who finished with 35 saves. "It was one of their guys right in front of me, just picked the corner of the ice. I didn’t even know where it went until I talked to one of the guys at intermission."

The Huskies’ lack of offense was not for want of trying, though they only got 24 shots to the net. UConn moved the puck well, and Cavanaugh was pleased with the way the Huskies broke out on rushes. There was just nothing there.

Energy was present on all four forward lines, especially the all-freshman line of Naas, Kasperi Ojantakanen and Corey Ronan. Picking up where they left off Saturday, Ojantakanen and Ronan used their speed and tenacity to get into positions to feed the puck to Naas, who nearly scored on most of his five shots.

"It’s hard for freshmen to come in and put a lot of points on the board," Cavanaugh said. "As an all-freshman line, I thought they applied a lot of pressure and they created some chances. There were times when they were stuck in their own zone – and I think that’s going to happen as well – but there’s also three freshmen on D.

"I like that line. I think they’re going to pose some matchup problems for other teams just because of their speed and how quick they are."

Lowell got the winner with three minutes to play in the third period on a fortunate deflection off Nichols. Michael Fallon played a centering puck to Michael Colantone, who pushed it at Nichols from the center of the slot. The puck hit Nichols near the right shoulder and bounced over him.

It was a shot that Cavanaugh said Nichols would stop nine out of 10 times.

"I feel like we’re doing a lot better now than we were before break," Nichols said. "There were two close games this weekend. It comes down to that last puck and it’s a 50-50 battle. That’s how close it is right now."

Nichols went to the bench with 1:30 to play to give UConn the extra skater. That was when Lowell bagged an empty-netter to seal it.

Cody Sharib beat Boyle with 13 seconds to go to finally give UConn a goal the Huskies had deserved for most of the game, but without a celebration, Sharib skated straight back to center ice for the face-off. UConn got the puck down into their zone for a final chance at goal, continuing to fight for goals even when the game was over.

"I think they will – and I want them to – know that they put forth the championship effort," Cavanaugh said. "Does it sting we didn’t take home the trophy and we have to sit there and watch another team do it? Of course it does. If you’re a competitor that will always sting. But I’m also going to tell them that they worked hard and they competed."