DURHAM, N.H. –Life is a fickle thing. It can be taken away about as fast as it is given.
UConn learned that lesson (again) Saturday night at the Whittemore Center.
Trevor Gerling scored a goal with 2:47 remaining in the second period to cut New Hampshire’s advantage to 2-1. The rebound effort, which was preceded by about five bounces off players, sticks and the glass, drew a spirited celebration from Gerling and the Huskies.
Their hope of a revival, of making a comeback and protecting the valued eighth position in the Hockey East standings, was essentially erased less than a minute later.
UNH defenseman Matias Cleland ripped a powerful shot over Rob Nichols’ shoulder on the blocker side 42 seconds after Gerling’s 10th goal of the season. For a team desperately trying to rediscover its form, nothing can be more devastating.
“If we finish that period strong, we have momentum going into the third period,” UConn head coach Mike Cavanaugh said. “For them to come right back and score that goal…it was very, I think, deflating at the time.”
The Wildcats added a couple more goals for fun in the third period, cruising to a 5-1 win that dropped UConn from eighth to 10th in the Hockey East standings with one game to play.
The Huskies (9-17-7, 6-11-4 Hockey East) are in the midst of their first four-game losing streak since losing five in a row from Jan. 8-21, 2011. UConn needs to defeat UMass Friday at the XL Center to have a chance at the final home-ice position in the Hockey East tournament. UNH (13-17-2, 8-11-1) remains in ninth place with 17 points, one ahead of UConn. Maine, which shared eighth place with the Huskies, owns sole possession of the final home-ice position after a 6-3 win over Northeastern Saturday.
If UConn had any early advantages, Cavanaugh said, it was in the face-off circle. But the Wildcats, who struck first 6:18 into the game, controlled every other facet of the game.
“They played better than we did right from the drop of the puck,” Cavanaugh said. “They outworked us. They out-chanced us. They were the better team tonight.”
UNH could not have drawn its opening goal up any better. Carolina Hurricanes prospect Warren Foegele made a move toward the right face-off circle, pulling a defenseman. That left Jay Camper wide open in the slot to receive the pass and bury a quick effort past Nichols.
UConn, a team that relies on physicality more than speed, looked like it had a hard time adjusting to the Olympic-size ice of the rink at the Whittemore Center, which is 15 feet wider than the NHL-size rink at the XL Center. But Cavanaugh saw a different issue.
“If people start worrying about the big ice, they get in trouble,” Cavanaugh said. “I think you just have to play your game. I don’t think it was the big ice that had anything to do with it. I think – when we go back and look at the tape – it was guys leaving their guys.”
Cavanaugh likened Saturday’s game to the Huskies’ first Hockey East game, a 2-1 overtime loss at Merrimack. During that game on Oct. 18, Nichols was berated with puck after dangerous puck. Despite a 1-0 lead by way of a late first period goal, UConn was always on the defensive, and the Warriors finally got to Nichols, scoring in the final minute before winning in overtime.
Nichols was again called upon to save the Huskies more than any team would want their goalie to have to. The sophomore made 36 stops Saturday. Unfortunately for Nichols and the Huskies, UNH had 41 shots on goal, and five of them went in.
“I thought tonight,” Cavanaugh said, “it reminded me of that game (Merrimack), where we were just back on our heels, and we were afraid to make plays, and we weren’t playing on our toes. And that’s the way we want to play.”
After Cleland made it 3-1, all signs pointed to a UNH win, but the Wildcats added some insurance in a third period that they dominated. Matt Willows, who netted the empty-net goal for UNH in a 4-1 win Friday, completed the weekend hat trick in the third period Saturday, scoring twice in three minutes and 12 seconds to put the exclamation point on a big weekend for the Wildcats.
Some will call it fatigue, others inexperience. Many might say UConn simply is not good enough yet to compete in Hockey East. Regardless of opinion, UConn is 1-5-2 in February and skating toward its worst month of hockey this season. But this is a fixable problem, Cavanaugh said. The Huskies are in “a funk,” and they have to get out of it.
“When you’re in a hole you have to stop digging, right?” Cavanaugh said. “That’s the first thing you have to do. You have to come back, and we have to work hard and try to get better every single day.”