BRIDGEPORT – The first 30 minutes of Sunday’s game at Webster Bank Arena made it seem like UConn and Notre Dame were going to replicate their epic showdown from Friday in South Bend.
The last 30 minutes were all Notre Dame.
UConn took the lead late in the first period, but the Fighting Irish scored six unanswered goals, including two goals in the second period and three in the third, en route to a 6-1 win over the Huskies.
“We didn’t have the energy we’ve played with a lot,” UConn coach Mike Cavanaugh said. “We were a step slow for pucks. Passes were off. They were winning the battles. And credit to Notre Dame. They were the better team for the last two periods of that game, and it showed in the score.”
Of the four points up for grabs during the teams’ home-and-home series, Notre Dame (10-11-3, 5-2-3 Hockey East) collected three. The Huskies (7-11-5, 4-5-2 Hockey East) only managed one point, the result of the 3-3 tie Friday.
UConn remains tied for seventh in the conference with Northeastern.
The first period was an even affair. Notre Dame had 13 shots to UConn’s 12, and both teams won 10 face-offs.
The Huskies were the team to break through first, on the power play, no less. Kasperi Ojantakanen settled a pass from Brent Norris in the slot and let a hard wrist shot fly. The shot seemed to startle Irish goaltender Cal Petersen, who jumped in surprise as the puck beat him high on the stick side.
UConn went 1-for-5 on the power play Sunday, improving the success rate to 13.4 percent for the season.
Three minutes later, Robbie Russo, who scored Notre Dame’s opening goal Friday, began to take over.
Notre Dame’s Anders Bjork played the puck to Sam Herr, who found Russo in his favorite spot: underneath the blue line, above the left face-off circle and wide open. With a powerful one-timer, he beat Nichols to even the game.
The Irish began to assert their dominance halfway through the second period. With just over even minutes to play, Ben Ostile made a great defensive play along the boards, separating Cody Sharib from the puck. It landed in the path of Joe Aiken, who turned, fired and buried his first career goal, beating Nichols from the right dot.
With one minute to play in the period, Notre Dame, the worst team in the nation on the power play, scored with the man advantage. Mario Lucia followed up his own point-blank effort with a backhanded rebound that tucked itself between Nichols and the post. Lucia’s 15th goal of the year moved him into a tie with Boston University’s Danny O’Regan for the lead in Hockey East.
“That kind of deflated us, I thought,” Cavanaugh said.
It only got worse for UConn three minutes into the third period when Russo notched his second goal, another powerful shot to give the Irish a 4-1 lead.
Seconds later, the Huskies were down in the attacking zone and looked to have cut the lead back to two on a tip from Evan Richardson. It was ruled no goal on the ice due to a high stick. The ruling was confirmed on review.
“I thought, ‘Alright, this might give us some energy. We might be able to get back in this game,’” Cavanaugh said. “And then they nullified it.”
The no-goal on Richardson’s tip looked to be the end of UConn’s comeback attempt. Then the Huskies got a power play with seven minutes to play, the result of a cross-checking call against Aiken.
Out of a timeout, Cavanaugh opted to go for the hockey equivalent of a Hail Mary, bringing Nichols to the bench to give UConn a six-on-four advantage at the other end.
All it ended up doing was giving Russo a bigger target.
Russo, a draft pick of the New York Islanders, won the puck in the corner of the defensive zone and flipped it out with a backhand. The puck zipped down the ice and nestled into the back of the empty net, giving Notre Dame a 5-1 lead.
“He’s been special all season long,” said Notre Dame coach Jeff Jackson, who earned his 400th career win Sunday. “If he’s not the best defenseman in the country, he’s one of the best.”
Notre Dame added another goal four minutes later, a blast from the blue line by Justin Wade, to put more salt in the Huskies’ open wound.
The game was played in Bridgeport as opposed to Hartford due to “Disney on Ice,” which was occupying the XL Center. Sunday was UConn’s fifth and final game at Webster Bank Arena this season, its second home game. The Huskies, who are 3-1-1 at the XL Center, finish the year 2-3-0 in Bridgeport and 0-2-0 in home games.
Sunday’s game had a different feel than a Hartford home game. After nearly 7,000 cheering fans helped urge UConn to a win over No. 6 UMass Lowell last week, an announced, pro-Notre Dame crowd of 4,597 sat in uniformed silence as the Huskies were blown out.
“It’s nothing against Bridgeport, we just have a great home advantage in Hartford,” Cavanaugh said.
UConn will be back in Hartford on Jan. 27. Before that, the Huskies have to make the trip to Conte Forum, where Boston College will try to avenge that historic 1-0 UConn win in the Nov. 5 home opener at the XL Center.
The Huskies will be back in classes like all UConn students Tuesday, but captain Ryan Tyson said that will not affect the team’s day-to-day preparations coming down the home stretch in Hockey East.
When UConn steps on the ice Saturday night, Cavanaugh hopes his team will get back to doing what it does best: playing UConn hockey.
“I think we need a mental day (Monday),” Cavanaugh said. “We all need to just kind of recharge and reset. We don’t have to do anything different when we play BC. We have to play our game. We have the foundation of a team that competes hard. We play structured. We just got away from that today.”