When Tage Thompson put UConn ahead 4-3 with seven minutes to play Saturday afternoon, UMass Lowell still looked the more likely to win.
The River Hawks peppered UConn's goal with shots and controlled the puck for much of the remainder of the game. With more than three minutes to play, UML coach Norm Bazin pulled star goaltender Kevin Boyle. It was not desperation; he had pulled him earlier than that, Bazin said after the game. But six River Hawks against five Huskies did not look like it could end with a UConn win.
When Patrick Kirtland lost his stick in the final minute, with UConn pushed up against its own net, it was a de facto six-on-four.
But Kirtland is UConn's captain for a reason. For four years, he has proven to be a warrior – tenacious, aggressive, fearless. He got in front of the puck handler, and he kicked at the puck, doing enough to disrupt UML's offense, keep it from scoring and help UConn hold on for a 4-3 win over the No. 5 River Hawks.
"Obviously that was a tough situation, but all I did was try to line up with the puck the best I could," Kirtland said. "By that time, I think my stick was already in the corner somewhere, so I knew I wasn't getting that back."
UConn (4-10-0, 2-7-0 Hockey East) had lost eight straight games—its worst stretch since losing 12 in a row in 2005-06—since a 5-2 win over No. 8 Boston University Oct. 27. UMass Lowell (10-2-4, 6-1-3) had won seven and tied two since losing Oct. 30 at Minnesota Duluth, its only other defeat of the season.
The Huskies went back to their roots Saturday. It was not pretty. It was not dominant. That's not how the Huskies win hockey games. They grind wins out.
"We focused on getting back to playing a blue-collar style of hockey, and I thought we did that, especially in the first period," UConn coach Mike Cavanaugh said.
Keeping with the blue-collar theme, Cavanaugh kept Spencer Naas, Corey Ronan and Kasperi Ojantakanen on a line together for the second straight game and the fourth time this season. Start calling that line "Ol' Reliable," because it gets results.
That line produced two goals. After UML took a 2-1 lead late in the second period, Naas assisted Ronan on a goal 21 seconds later. About 80 seconds after that, Ronan and Naas combined to win the puck behind the net, and Naas pushed it past Boyle to give UConn the lead entering the third period.
Part of that line's success comes from one player (usually Ronan or Ojantakanen) winning pucks along the boards and drawing attention away from the other two as the go to goal. Ojantakanen was the workhorse Saturday. UConn focused on winning one-on-one battles in practice this week. The Finnish forward took it one—or three—steps forward.
@Tim_Fontenault Kasperi in the corner. Four men on him during a change and held it. Wow.— Angry 1999 Banner (@Angry99Banner) December 5, 2015
After scoring twice against Arizona State Oct. 16, Naas did not score again until UConn's 5-1 loss to Boston College its last time out Nov. 24. He has now scored in back-to-back games. No UConn player had done that yet this season. When UConn lost its second game of the eight-game losing streak, an 8-2 loss to Notre Dame, Cavanaugh left him out of the lineup, saying he expected more from the sophomore.
Naas is starting to be a factor the way he was his freshman year.
"I know he started slow, but he's constantly been working on his game," Cavanaugh said. "He's down shooting pucks. As you see right now, he's really starting to be a factor in our games, and that's a lot of hard work on his part."
To keep those guys together, some alterations had to be made. After missing five games with an injury, alternate captain Shawn Pauly came back and was deployed as the left wing on a line with Thompson and Max Letunov. Pauly has rarely strayed from playing center in his career. It worked Saturday. Pauly did not get on the score sheet, but he was a great compliment to the offensive might of Letunov and Thompson.
The Pauly line featured on both power plays for UConn, and it resulted in goals for Thompson for both times.
"It's definitely a good line there," Pauly said. "A couple of good guys, really solid freshmen. You could see why they're heavily touted."
Thompson stepped up again Saturday, with both his goals coming on the power play. All six of his goals in his freshman season have come on the power play. Last season, Evan Richardson led the team with three.
Pauly helped out on Thompson's first goal, screening Boyle as Thompson fired a powerful shot from the high slot. The second one, the game-winner, was all Thompson. Joe Masonius hit Thompson with a cross-ice pass to the top of the left circle. Thompson did not need to settle the puck. He hardly even had to look where he was shooting. He one-timed the puck on a furious slap shot. Boyle never had a chance.
"He takes that shot, I watch him after practice, he'll take 50 or 60 of those after practice."
With the losing streak over, UConn can focus on getting results and climbing up the Hockey East standings. With only two more games before the holiday break—Sunday at UMass Lowell and Friday against No. 16 Merrimack in Hartford. Those are two big chances to hit back against some of Hockey East's best.
UConn can complete the sweep of the River Hawks Sunday in a game that will air on NESN and SNY at 1 p.m.. The Huskies have yet to sweep a Hockey East series, and they have not swept a series since taking down American International in a home-and-home Atlantic Hockey showdown in January 2014.
"It's a big game," Masonius said. "We want to get a sweep, but it's another game. We have to go in with the right mindset, the right focus, stick with the game plan and win the game. That's the goal."