HARTFORD – Entering Friday’s game loser of three out of its last four but still in control of eighth place in Hockey East, UConn would have benefitted greatly from a win at the XL Center.
That did not happen. In a game of nearly equal chances, New Hampshire made the most of its opportunities. UConn did not, falling to the Wildcats 4-1, but the Huskies’ effort was far superior to the last weekend’s 9-0 and 6-1 drubbings at the hands of Northeastern and the 10-1 meltdown at Providence the week before.
“I thought we played pretty well,” head coach Mike Cavanaugh said. “I told the team that that was a much different effort than we’ve had the past two weekends. We won the special teams game. We won face-offs. The attempts in the game were even.”
UConn’s struggle Friday – as it has been at many times this season – was its inability to finish chances. Meanwhile, UNH (12-17-2, 7-11-1 Hockey East) capitalized on its limited opportunities.
Two of the Wildcats’ goals came on opportunistic net drives. The Huskies (9-16-7, 6-10-4) lost sight of Tyler Kelleher on the first goal 1:44 into the second period. He crashed the net and buried a pass from Dan Correale into the top of the net.
Kelleher returned the favor 11:48 into the third period. Correale made a hard drive into the slot, and Kelleher put the puck on his stick. Without breaking stride, Correale whipped it past goaltender Rob Nichols into the top corner of the net to give the Wildcats a 3-1 lead.
“If you have a breakdown, they have a scoring chance,” Cavanaugh said. “And you know what, they’ve been doing that for years. They’ve been that type of team for a long time.”
Correale finished with three points on the night. He assisted UNH’s second goal, which came 37 seconds after Kelleher’s. Correale moved the puck to Carolina Hurricanes prospect Brett Pesce just below the blue line. Pesce, with plenty of space to Nichols’ right, ripped a shot off the post and in.
The fourth UNH goal was an empty-netter from Matt Willows with 5.2 seconds to play.
Down 2-0 early in the second, UConn answered back within four minutes. Cody Sharib put in his seventh goal of the year with a rebound on a power play to cut the lead in half and end a 0-for-28 drought on the man advantage.
“If I’m taking a positive from the game, I thought our power play was good,” Cavanaugh said. “They scored a goal when we needed it, which is always important. And then when (UNH) got a late power play, we bared down and got a big penalty kill there, too.”
But the lack of a finishing touch killed the Huskies again.
UConn came out strong, creating turnover after turnover in the neutral zone, winning important puck battles that created chances in front of Trumbull native Danny Tirone. The Huskies just could not hit the net.
Trevor Gerling got the Huskies’ first chance four minutes in, but his shot from the slot rang the post and bounced away. Then Patrick Kirtland almost scored a couple minutes later on a rebound that bounced into his path, but he put it into the side netting.
Not long after that, Joona Kunnas made a diagonal pass from the point that got through to Brent Norris, who was wide open outside the goal mouth and had Tirone scrambling to get back. In the excitement, Norris lifted the puck over the net and off the back glass.
After that, the game became a back-and-forth battle in the neutral zone, and the Huskies’ chances became fewer. Those that they got were squandered.
“I do think we had some chances, and some great chances,” Cavanaugh said. “We just didn’t finish. But it’s not anything, I think, you can – you don’t let it get in your head. Just keep creating chances and bear down and get pucks on net.
“The disappointing thing for me was, I thought we missed the net on chances where there’s nobody in front of you. We missed the net, and that can come back and hurt you if you do that.”
UConn has two games remaining in the regular season, starting Saturday with the away leg of the home-and-home series at UNH. The Huskies will be back home for Senior Night next Friday against UMass.
Four points would almost certainly guarantee UConn home-ice advantage in the first round of the Hockey East tournament. But if UNH can complete the sweep, it would jump ahead of UConn into eighth place in the conference.
And the Wildcats know that will not be easy. Head coach Dick Umile noted that his team completed a difficult task Friday in beating UConn in Hartford, and that they have another tough game to look forward to Saturday.
“They’re a good team,” Umile said. “I heard about them all year, how hard they are to play against. They’re well coached and, you know, that was the case tonight.”