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Men's Hockey: UConn Struggles in 8-2 Loss to Notre Dame in Brooklyn

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Sunday was a night to forget for the Huskies.

Patrick Kirtland scored a goal for UConn Sunday, but a lackluster performance doomed the Huskies in an 8-2 setback.
Patrick Kirtland scored a goal for UConn Sunday, but a lackluster performance doomed the Huskies in an 8-2 setback.
Ian Bethune/TrueBlueUConn.com

BROOKLYN, N.Y. — Remember last February, when UConn's hopes of hosting a home series in the Hockey East Tournament were quelled by a string of blowouts at the hands of Providence, Northeastern and New Hampshire?

A similar loss—but one without such drastic repercussions—happened again Sunday afternoon in Brooklyn.

The Huskies looked lost, broken, deflated and every other imaginable synonym for those words. From own goals to defensive breakdowns, to a lackluster crowd, there was nothing for UConn to smile about after an 8-2 loss to Notre Dame Sunday afternoon at the Barclays Center.

UConn (3-4-0, 1-3-0 Hockey East) dropped both games of the weekend "home" series. The Irish (3-1-2, 2-0-0) followed up a 2-1 win Saturday at the XL Center with a dominating performance in Brooklyn.

The numbers were not much different than the Saturday game. Notre Dame had a 37-21 shot advantage, and UConn had a 28-25 face-off advantage before the Irish won the last six, well after the game was out of reach. The Huskies even stayed out of the penalty box for most of the game, only going twice: Ryan Segalla late in the first period and Patrick Kirtland early in the second.

Notre Dame coach Jeff Jackson even admitted the Huskies were the better team early in the game, controlling the puck and getting solid chances before Jake Evans opened the scoring nine minutes in. What happened to the Huskies?

"We got dismantled today," UConn coach Mike Cavanaugh said. "...Right after they got their first goal, it really went downhill. We didn't respond well, and I think it was a young team playing against a structured, older group of kids who outplayed us tonight, plain and simple."

Cavanaugh made several changes to his forward lines after keeping them the same for Saturday's game following Tuesday's win over No. 8 Boston University. Tage Thompson and Max Letunov were broken up at the start, but were back together by the second period. Corey Ronan and Kasperi Ojantakanen were put on different lines early, and Karl El-Mir replaced Jesse Schwartz on the fourth line.

Schwartz and standout sophomore Spencer Naas were scratches Sunday afternoon. Cavanaugh said that was his decision based on recent performances.

"I just think that (Naas) can play better, same thing with Jesse," Cavanaugh said. "It's not personal. I guess I expect a lot more from our upperclassmen. I wanted those two to understand we need them to play better. And I need to coach better. It's not that they're in my doghouse or I'm down on them. It's one game."

UConn was down 4-0 in the second period before Kirtland finished a rebound after finding Shawn Pauly in front. The captain's second goal of the year cut the lead to three. At that point, had UConn been able to settle down and finish chances, there could have been hope.

But Notre Dame came back two-and-a-half minutes later and sealed the game. Freshman Joe Wegwerth, a draft pick of the Florida Panthers in 2014, settled the puck off a face-off, slid into the high slot and ripped a shot bar-down over Rob Nichols' shoulder.

"UConn's a better team than what we saw today. We were just fortunate we jumped on them early and gave us some life," Jackson said. "...Once we scored that first goal, we kind of loosened up and started playing well, the way we want to play: good transition game, fast out of our own end and through the neutral zone."

Nichols did not last far into the third period. He was pulled with 10:55 to play, giving way to Tanner Creel, the former Army goaltender making his UConn debut. Creel did not allow a goal in the third period. Corey Ronan pulled one back for UConn, but at 8-2, it was just a stat.

Nichols gave up seven of the eight goals before the change, an anomaly for a talented goaltender who entered the game with a 0.929 save percentage and a 2.01 goals against average.

"I have to forget about it," Nichols said. "We have (Monday) off, so I'll probably watch some video (Monday), maybe, then I'll put it behind me. Tuesday, I have to worry about the first shot at practice. That's all I can focus on really."

The seventh goal of the night—one not charged to Nichols—summed up UConn's lack of execution and incredible misfortune Sunday.

An official had his arm in the air, ready to call a cross-checking penalty against Luke Ripley of Notre Dame, but UConn had possession of the puck. Nichols went to the bench, allowing for an extra skater.

Pauly had the puck on his stick behind the net and saw Tage Thompson hovering around the blue line. Pauly went for the pass, but it was too far from Thompson. As soon as the puck left his stick, the line was clear.

It got past Thompson, then, it happened slowly. The Huskies could only watch as the puck trickled into the net. An empty-net goal credited to Notre Dame's Tony Bretzman—but an own goal in reality—gave the Irish a 7-1 lead.

"I haven't seen one in college hockey like that," Jackson said. "That just kind of showed how things were not going UConn's direction. Like I said, they're a better team than that."

There are no bright sides for UConn after a loss like that, but the Huskies will be relieved to put this weekend behind them and get focused on next weekend's home-and-home series with UMass.

The series with the Minutemen (4-1-1, 0-0-1) are off to a solid start this season, but following a 6-1 loss to Yale Saturday and a tough midweek game against Boston College, points could be ripe for the picking for UConn in the Connecticut-Massachusetts state school throw-down.

One of the keys will be getting the young players to forget about this. UConn has a lot of freshmen in the rotation who weren't around for the struggles of last February. Helping them to overcome this will be a key focus this week for Kirtland, the captain, and the rest of the upperclassmen.

But the team, as a whole, needs to readjust.

"It's tough. We just have to get back to work starting on Tuesday. We have to get back to basics – breakouts, neutral zone, forecheck, everything else. It's a new weekend next weekend, so we need to focus on those two games."