AMHERST, Mass. – Trevor Gerling stood unnerved in the penalty box at the Mullins Center as the clock slowly ticked toward triple zeros.
Gerling, scorer of two goals Friday night against UMass, was sent to the box for elbowing with 1:56 remaining in the third period, as the Huskies held on to a one-goal lead. Forty seconds later, UMass goaltender Steve Mastalerz went to the bench to make way for an extra skater, giving the Minutemen a 6-on-4 advantage with the puck deep in the UConn zone.
Shot after shot, pass after pass, UMass worked the puck toward the UConn net, but the Huskies, who had already let the Minutemen sneak back into the game once, were unrelenting, holding on for a 4-3 win.
“I was calm back there,” Gerling said. “I knew that anyone we put on the ice, I was confident that they were going to get the job done. We’ve got a lot of guys that kill penalties and block shots, and I knew (UConn goaltender Rob) Nichols was going to be big back there, so that was an easy kill.”
Head coach Mike Cavanaugh was not as mellow about the frenzy in the UConn zone.
“I wouldn’t call it easy,” Cavanaugh said.
The win moves UConn into a tie with Northeastern for eighth place with seven points in Hockey East play and was the Huskies’ first ever road win in the conference.
Gerling’s two-goal game was his second of the season and the fourth of his career. Gerling, along with linemate Shawn Pauly, notched two goals in a 4-4 tie at Boston University on Nov. 8.
Freshman Spencer Naas also added two goals for the Huskies, registering the first multi-goal game of his UConn career. Naas put the bookends on Friday’s game, opening the scoring with a well-worked goal in the first period before notching the game-winner with 6:05 to play.
Naas was unable to get to the bench to switch out with Will Golonka on a line change, leaving him on the ice with Jesse Schwartz and Brent Norris. It worked out, though. Schwartz found Norris with a pass behind the net and Norris dished the puck to Naas in front of the goal for a one-time effort that beat Mastalerz with ease.
The Minnesota native’s fifth goal gave him a share of the team lead, at least for four minutes before Gerling put a rebound effort past Mastalerz for his sixth goal of the season. Gerling corralled the puck on a rebound and put his initial shot right into Mastalerz’s pads. He was able to maintain possession and put the rebound top-shelf.
“Trevor’s first goal was a great goal,” Cavanaugh said. “I love that goal. I mean, he’s at that net banging away. But those are great goals to score right there. That’s how, if we’re going to be a successful team, we’re going to have to score more of those goals than his second one. Although I like his second one, though.”
The UConn fans in attendance – there were a few scattered throughout the arena – were elated at the sight Gerling’s second goal, which gave the Huskies a 3-1 lead two minutes into the third period. Gerling settled the puck at the top of the left face-off circle and ripped a laser of a slap shot that beat Mastalerz to his blocker side.
More impressive was the situation, a power play, on which UConn had only scored on two of its last 30 attempts entering Friday’s game, both in a 6-4 loss at UMass Lowell on Dec. 3. On the season, UConn is now 7-for-64 with a man advantage, a conversion rate of 10.9 percent.
That is not for want of trying, however. UConn opened the game with an early power play and went to work in the UMass zone, putting three great chances on net. UConn put 11 shots on goal during their three power plays on the night.
“Trevor’s been working on that shot in practice, he has, that slap shot upstairs,” Cavanaugh said. “And I was glad to see it go in for him tonight.
The assistant captain put most of the credit for the goal on Pauly, who was able to take Mastalerz out of the play.
“Pauly was doing a good job in front,” Gerling said. “He had a D tied up with him. As Coach mentioned, in practice special teams is an emphasis and we’ve been working on getting pucks down to the net. So I tried to get it off as quick as I can, and Pauly was doing a good job in front.
Three minutes later, UMass struck back through leading scorer Frank Vatrano. The sophomore beat Nichols in front for his 12th goal of the year to cut the Huskies’ lead to 3-2. Five mintues later, Anaheim Ducks draft pick Brandon Montour, playing only his fourth game for UMass, scored his first career goal with a hard shot from the point.
It was back-and-forth after that, as both teams pushed for a winning goal. The golden opportunity fell to Naas, and he took it.
Looking for a brief moment like former Husky Billy Latta, Naas jumped off the bench and immediately collected a pass and gained the zone. Skating down the left wing, Naas took the puck to the near post and slipped it through Mastalerz’s legs, giving the Huskies the lead for good.
Playing like a veteran is not an unusual concept for Naas, or any of UConn’s freshmen, however. The Huskies have relied on a lot of freshmen this season, and Friday’s lineup featured seven across two forward lines and two defensive pairings.
Again Friday night, the freshmen, particularly Naas’ line with freshmen teammates Kasperi Ojantakanen and Corey Ronan impacted the game, but it comes as no surprise to the veterans.
“I don’t think we look at freshmen and sophomores anymore. I think we’re all just part of the team,” Gerling said. “They are younger guys, but they bring an element of speed that not every line has three guys that can skate that way. So, they bring something different to the table than the other lines and they’re doing a great job playing to their strengths.”