HARTFORD – There may have been 48 days between UConn hockey games at the XL Center, but the Huskies were quick to get back to business Saturday night.
Coming off a 6-3 win at Army Friday night, UConn rode goals from Jacob Poe and Spencer Naas to a 2-0 win over No. 6 UMass Lowell in front of 6,855 energetic fans.
The Huskies (7-10-4, 4-4-1 Hockey East) are now 4-4-1 against ranked opponents this season. Three of those wins have come at the XL Center, where UConn is 3-1-1 this season.
“It’s nice to get back home here,” goaltender Rob Nichols said. “The crowd’s pretty electric and it’s just nice playing in a familiar building here. And we really enjoy it, you know? We just bring it here.”
Nichols and the Huskies were outscored 9-5 in their first two meetings with UMass Lowell (14-4-3, 7-1-2 Hockey East) this season. No one in Hockey East – or anywhere in college hockey – had figured out a way to slow down the River Hawks’ attack. But the Huskies figured it out Saturday.
UConn is the first team to keep Lowell scoreless since Boston College on Feb. 21, 2014, a stretch of 30 games for the River Hawks. The Hockey East leaders entered the game averaging 3.9 goals per game on 30.9 shots, but only put 21 shots on goal against the Huskies.
“We had 23 blocks. That’s more shots than I even saw, I think, tonight,” Nichols said. “So I just saw how hard guys were battling in the zone tonight. I think there were times when Poe was on the ice and the puck wouldn’t even get to the net. It makes my job a lot easier, especially when I can’t see the puck.”
Even though UConn’s shot advantage was not significant (27-21), the Huskies dominated the game from start to finish. UConn did not get back to Storrs from West Point, N.Y. until 12:30 Saturday morning but came out with the energy of a team that had not played in several days.
A lot of that energy came from Patrick Kirtland and his linemates for the day, Brent Norris and Will Golonka. Kirtland was the oddity on the line due to a shoulder injury Jesse Schwartz sustained Friday night. The junior had been paired with Shawn Pauly and Trevor Gerling for the past several games, but there seemed to be something missing from his game.
He found it Saturday night. Kirtland put three shots on net and created even more scoring chances while blocking three shots on the defensive end.
“I think Pat would be the first to tell you that he hasn’t been playing as well as he wants to play,” head coach Mike Cavanaugh said. “And tonight, I thought he was back. He was physical. He was hard. He was out there a lot at the end of the game because he’s probably our best shot-blocker.”
Kirtland and his line played a key role in tilting the ice UConn’s way in the first period, when the Huskies outshot the River Hawks 11-4. But there was something missing from UConn’s game: power play execution, something that has been trending slightly upward in recent games.
UConn had a five-minute power play opportunity after a boarding major was called against Lowell forward and Edmonton Oilers draft pick Evan Campbell, but that only produced one shot.
In the second period, UConn got another opportunity, when Tyler Mueller was sent to the box for tripping. The Huskies looked more determined in the offensive, and on the third shot of the power play, Poe slapped a shot through Kevin Boyle’s legs from the blue line.
Cavanaugh has been emphasizing the need to get pucks to the net, and UConn continued to do that in the final 29 minutes after Poe’s second goal of the season. There was never a moment when the Huskies looked to be desperate to hold on for a 1-0 win. They wanted to get to 2-0.
With 1:44 to play, they got there.
Naas settled the puck on the wall near the left face-off circle and threw the puck at the net. It took a deflection off Lowell captain Zack Kamrass and went through Boyle’s legs for Naas’ team-leading ninth goal of the season.
“I always try to concentrate on trying to get pucks on net throughout a game,” Naas said. “Especially in the third period, you never know what happens when you throw a puck on net. I found a little time in the corner and I thought, why not? I’ll just throw it at the net and maybe create a scrum. If I get lucky it will go in.”
With 1:22 to play, Boyle made his way to the bench to give Lowell the extra skater. The River Hawks managed to keep the puck in the UConn zone for most of the remaining time, but the defense never wavered.
The best chances in the final minute actually went to UConn. Even with five seconds remaining and a 2-0 lead, the Huskies continued to fight for a third goal. That is what Cavanaugh expects from Hockey East’s party crasher.
“We want to be a team that is always attacking. We never want to sit back and hope our goalie makes a save or hope we can get a block. We want to be attacking when we can.
“That’s a very good club over there. They’re two-time Hockey East champs. They haven’t lost a game in Hockey East. To say I’m proud of our guys is an understatement.”