HARTFORD – Providence coach Nate Leaman called it a "rock right." UConn coach Mike Cavanaugh called it a "good, physical game." Both called it a battle of two great goaltenders.
Any way you look at it, Wednesday's 2-2 tie between the Huskies and the No. 13 Friars was a deadlock, with the two teams deservedly sharing the two available points.
The Huskies had to hold off a late surge from the Friars. After a flurry of shots in the final minute of the third period, Providence outshot UConn 5-0 in overtime.
Both goaltenders came up big at the XL Center Wednesday night. Providence star Jon Gillies made 23 saves, none bigger than a breakaway stop in the third period. Rob Nichols, the reigning Hockey East Defensive Player of the Week, stopped 33 shots for the Huskies.
UConn (8-12-7, 5-6-4 Hockey East) only needed two minutes and eight seconds to score the opening goal. After collecting a pass from Jeff Wight in front of the net, Evan Richardson slid the puck to Brent Norris, who had an open net to shoot at. He buried the puck past Jon Gillies to give the Huskies the early lead.
The start of the game matched nearly every UConn home game against a ranked opponent this season. The Huskies fired off shot after shot – initially jumping out to a 6-1 edge – while the Friars (16-9-2, 8-6-1) looked to be skating through mud.
"I don't think we were ready to play to start the game," Leaman said. "I think that was...the disappointment in the game was that they were ready to play the game at the start and we weren't. We were kind of chasing the game for a lot of the first period."
Despite chasing the game, Providence managed to equalize seven minutes after Norris' opener. A scramble in front of the net resulted in a loose puck that fell to Brooks Behling in the high slot. Behling, a junior playing only his fifth game of the season and 12th of his career, put enough pace on a one-time effort to barely squeak the puck past Rob Nichols into the net.
For as good as UConn has been defensively in support of Nichols, several loose pucks have resulted in goals recently. Boston College, Maine and now Providence have all reaped the benefits of the favorable bounce and the Huskies' missed chances to clear the puck.
"When those situations happen, you gotta get sticks," Cavanaugh said. "You can't be worried about hitting guys (high). You gotta get down and get their sticks and make sure they can't whack it in.
"But, as I said, those scrambles, they create energy and guys panic sometimes, and they go after the puck instead of picking up a stick. But we'll get better at that. That's something that, you know, we'll work at. And we've been pretty good at it all year long. It does seem, though, over the past couple games that it's happened a few times."
The Huskies went back on top 37 seconds into the second period thanks to Trevor Gerling. UConn quickly gained the zone and Gerling beat Gillies for his ninth goal of the season.
Ryan Segalla went to the penalty box four minutes later, giving Providence its first power play. The Friars nearly scored within the first 30 seconds of the man advantage, and then Ryan Tyson went to the box for delay of game, resulting in a 5-on-3 for Providence.
Tyson was in the box for 11 seconds before Friars captain Ross Mauermann fired in his sixth goal of the year from the slot. Nick Saracino and Treovr Mingoia combined to set the center up off a face-off, and he buried the shot with ease.
The second period tilted the ice in favor of the Friars. After outshooting Providence 12-5 in the first period, UConn was on the wrong end of a 16-9 count in the second. Nichols, ever UConn's savior throughout the season, was able to keep the Friars at bay.
In the third, the game started to level out again, UConn and Providence traded chances, with most of the best opportunities going the way of the Huskies.
The best of those chances came with seven minutes left. Richardson won a battle in the neutral zone and gained the one on a two-on-one rush with Jeff Wight. Richardson had Gillies' attention, so he played the puck through the slot to Wight. What looked like the winning goal beyond any doubt was not to be, however. Gillies, a draft pick of the Calgary Flames and a goaltender on the 2013 United States team that won the World Junior Championships, sprawled back across his crease and made a highlight-reel stick save.
"Jeff did everything he could on that," Cavanaugh said. "A lot of people would say, 'Oh, you just gotta lift it.' But that's not the case. Evan threw a great pass over to him, and he one-timed that on his forehand, which is a really hard play to make. He didn't waste any time trying to shoot it. You've gotta tip your hat. Gillies made a great save."
From that point, Providence started to pick up the pace. Shots were close to even entering the final minute of the period, but the Friars began assaulting Nichols' net, forcing the sophomore and the Huskies to hold on for dear life.
The overtime period was no different. Providence outshot UConn 5-0 in the extra five minutes, hardly giving the Huskies a chance to breathe.
"We turned the puck over a lot in the neutral zone," Cavanaugh said. "So when you do that – when you don't get it behind their defensemen – you put yourselves in bad situations. It's either a partial or odd-man rush, or they're chipping it in and you're having to go out and break out a puck under pressure."
The Huskies wanted two points, but the one they earned Wednesday gives them 14 in Hockey East, enough to move UConn into a tie with Northeastern for seventh. There will be another chance for two points Saturday, when the Huskies head to Schneider Arena for the second leg of a home-and-home tilt with the Friars.
Last time UConn made the trip to Schneider, the Friars were ranked ninth in the polls and playing some of the best hockey in the country. Providence outshot UConn 60-26, but it was the Huskies, the little Atlantic Hockey side preparing to move up and join the big kids, who got the win behind a program-record 58 saves from Matt Grogan.
"We've come a long way as a club, where I think that – I know it was 35-25 (in shots) tonight – but I think that's a team that we can certainly skate with and play with," Cavanaugh said. "We've come a long way in a year.
"We wanted to get the two points tonight. We didn't, but any point this time of year once you're going down the stretch fighting for a playoff spot is crucial. And I am happy we got at least one point tonight."