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Naas notches fifth game-winner, UConn bounces back with win over Merrimack

Spencer Naas' goal with 5:18 to play secured two critical Hockey East points for the Huskies, who move into a tie for seventh place with a 1-0 victory.

Brent Norris had the primary assist on Spencer Naas’ game-winning goal Tuesday night. (Photo by Steve Quick/The Daily Campus)
Brent Norris had the primary assist on Spencer Naas’ game-winning goal Tuesday night. (Photo by Steve Quick/The Daily Campus)
(Photo by Steve Quick/The Daily Campus)

HARTFORD – Sitting in the press room outside the Providence locker room at Schneider Arena Saturday night, UConn coach Mike Cavanaugh said the Huskies' 10-1 loss to the Friars was an aberration, but only if the Huskies got back to playing their game immediately.

Tuesday night was back to typical UConn hockey. A back-and-forth battle of wills between two top goaltenders presented a multitude of chances, but few capitalizations. With five minutes left, Spencer Naas made an incredible play – the result of great efforts by his linemates – to bury the lone goal of the game, his 12th of the season and his fifth game winner.

Classic UConn.

That goal was all the Huskies would need to pick up two of their most important points of the season in a 1-0 win over Merrimack at the XL Center.

The Huskies are now 7-2-2 when Naas scores a goal.

Merrimack turned the puck over in the neutral zone, allowing UConn to break out on a rush. Corey Ronan sent a pass to Brent Norris, who was in on Merrimack goaltender Rasmus Tirronen but saw Naas in the high slot. Norris sent a centering feed across the goal and Naas, despite a lot of ground to cover and a defenseman tangling with him, buried the game-winning goal as he fell to the ice.

"I just tried to get the shot off as quick as I could,' Naas said. "I knew if I could get it off quickly, I could beat the goalie to the near post."

Not only were the Huskies able to recover and get the win, they did it with one of their best defensive performances of the season. UConn (9-13-7, 6-7-4 Hockey East) played stellar defense in front of Rob Nichols, who made 32 saves in his third shutout of the year.

The Huskies are the first team to shutout Merrimack (14-11-3, 5-9-2) since Maine in the first round of the Hockey East tournament on March 8, 2014.

"I didn't even know that," Cavanaugh said. "If we can shutout anybody, I think that's great. We were very – as I said, I thought Robby was solid – but we didn't give up many second and third chance opportunities, which I think has been a trademark of our team.

"But it was two points. And as I told the guys the other night, whether you lose 5-4 in overtime or 10-1 it doesn't matter. You lost two points. And tonight, whether we won 1-0 or 6-0, it doesn't matter to me as long as we get the two points."

Those two points bear a lot of significance against Merrimack. The Warriors entered Tuesday's game two points behind the Huskies for that crucial eighth spot in the Hockey East standings. Merrimack still has a game in hand, but now sits four points back for the last home-ice spot for the opening round of the conference tournament.

But UConn did not enter the game worried feeling the pressure. For the Huskies, a team picked to finish 12th in Hockey East in the preseason, this is a different kind of pressure – the fun kind.

"This is just professional pressure, and this is what gets you up in the morning," Cavanaugh said. "Personal pressure – if you're dealing with a family member who's sick or something like that – that's stuff that's really hard to deal with. This is fun. This is professional pressure. This is stuff that gets me up in the morning.

"Our kids love the fact that hey, we're in Hockey East. We're in one of the best leagues in the country and we're battling for home ice. That's terrific. What else could you ask for? I think we love it and we relish our opportunity for the next game."

It was obvious from the start that both teams were going to go all out for the two points. The ice never tilted in one team's favor for too long before the other got another opportunity. It was an even game with a playoff feel to it.

And it was a battle of two of the best goalies in Hockey East that always seemed destined to end 1-0.

Rob Nichols and Rasmus Tirronen were the center of attention for most of Tuesday's game. It was like they were playing a game of goaltender Horse, with both stepping up to make incredible saves time after time.

The best scoring chances went UConn's way, but Tirronen was as acrobatic as he was on Oct. 18, when he helped the Warriors come from behind to beat the Huskies in their Hockey East debut. Kicking away a point-blank effort from Jeff Wight here, stuffing Trevor Gerling on a breakaway there, the Finland native was outstanding en route to 35 saves.

There was nothing he could do about Naas' goal.

"When it gets late against two teams that don't give up a lot of goals, one goal's huge," Merrimack coach Mark Dennehy said.

After being pulled early in the second period in what was then a 5-0 game Saturday, Nichols was clearly playing with a chip on his shoulder. The UConn netminder made 32 stops, showing the aggression but also the intelligence that has made him the centerpiece of the Huskies' success this season.

It did not come without incident, however.

A shot from the left face-off circle in the second period got through heavy traffic and caught Nichols off guard. Nichols was down on all fours after the play and looked to be in a lot of pain, but there was never any doubt he was going to stay in the game.

No one wanted to think that was a possibility.

"I didn't even look," Cavanaugh said. "I didn't want to even entertain the thought that he was going to come out of the game. I think he got hit in the collarbone, but I think it just stung him."

The Huskies' four-point lead for eighth place comes with a caveat: Maine, Merrimack and New Hampshire – which sits in 11th five points back – each have a game in hand on UConn.

That will mean little to the Huskies, who know that with three home games left and five total, they control their own destiny. All they can do is worry about what lies in front of them, which right now is a home-and-home series Friday and Saturday with Northeastern, which starts in Boston.

That is all Cavanaugh wants to talk about right now. No more about the 10-1 game. No more about how many points ahead of this team or behind that team they are. All that matters is the next game.

"We're on to Northeastern," Cavanaugh said.