DURHAM, N.H. – UConn returned to the Whittemore Center Friday night looking like a more controlled and focused group than the one that lost 5-1 to New Hampshire in the same building a couple weeks ago.
But some bad bounces, overaggressive defense and quick scoring bursts, there was little hope of the Huskies taking control in their first Hockey East postseason series.
UNH scored three power play goals and had two-goal bursts in spans of 70 and 30 seconds, respectively, as the Huskies dropped the first game of their opening round series 5-2.
“There’s still some things I think we can improve on, but we did a lot more things right than we did two weeks ago here,” goaltender Rob Nichols said.
UConn is in a do-or-die situation Saturday. The Huskies need to win to force the series to a deciding Game 3 Sunday. If they fail to do that, the season is over.
Things were going well for UConn early on. For the first four minutes, they controlled possession and made the Wildcats chase the puck for long stretches.
UNH was not going to let the ice stayed tilted in UConn’s favor for long, however. Dan Correale forced a turnover in the neutral zone and broke into the zone, putting a centering feed to Tyler Kelleher, who redirected the puck toward Nichols. The puck hit Nichols and appeared to go off defenseman Kyle Huson before going past Nichols into the net at the 4:38 mark.
“I knew it hit me in the pads, then after that, I think it went off something,” Nichols said. “Then, next thing you know, I reached behind me and I think it was already too late.”
The goal came with a bonus prize for the Wildcats: Huson ended up in the penalty box for hooking in the lead-up to the goal. With all the momentum in UNH’s favor, Grayson Downing made it 2-0 70 seconds later with a wrist shot from close range on the power play.
That was the first of three power play goals for the Wildcats.
David Drake went to the penalty box for tripping at the 7:25 mark in the second period. Spencer Naas joined him 29 seconds later after being whistled for his second penalty of the game, giving UNH a two-man advantage.
For Naas, being called for one penalty in a game is a rare happening. Twice? Almost unheard of.
“It was a little bit overaggressive, I believe, especially on the one that put us down five-on-three,” head coach Mike Cavanaugh said. “I think he was really trying to create pressure and pressure the puck, backpressure the puck, but he got his stick up.”
Off the ensuing face-off, the Wildcats controlled the possession, and Matt Willows was able to get into the low slot and beat Nichols for his 19th goal of the season.
Thirty seconds later, with Huson out of the box but UNH still on the power play, Kelleher batted a bouncing puck into the net to give the Wildcats a 4-0 lead.
Ignoring the scoreboard, there were bright spots for UConn defensively. The Huskies were aided by the return of freshman defenseman Johnny Austin, who missed 10 games with a broken finger. The Minnesota native looked comfortable on the ice, blocking two shots and posting a plus-one rating. He also helped put some life back in UConn’s power play, which nearly created a couple chances in the second period.
“I thought he was great,” Cavanaugh said. “I thought he was really good. He was moving the puck well. He settled our…the last two (power plays), I thought they moved the puck well and created some chances. And a lot of that’s Johnny settles everything down up top there.”
The other positive was Nichols, UConn’s brick wall in the net.
Nichols limited the damage for the Huskies, making 28 saves. The sophomore now has 1,010 saves on the season, joining Garrett Bartus in that regard. Bartus made a school-record 1,179 saves in 2011-12 and 1,085 in 2009-10.
UConn got one a goal back five minutes later. Brent Norris threw a shot on net, but it hit Shawn Pauly and Spencer Naas before looping over UNH goaltender Danny Tirone into the back of the net. Naas received credit for his 13th goal of the season that cut the lead to 4-1.
The Huskies were relaxed and in control throughout the early stages of the third period, and they were rewarded with a goal at the 9:39 mark. Tirone blocked Ryan Tyson’s effort, but Joey Ferriss wrapped around the net and beat the Trumbull native with a rebound inside the near post.
It was Ferriss’ second goal of the season, the eighth of his career. And while UNH added an empty-netter with 45 seconds to play, the Huskies feel confident heading into Game 2 Saturday at 7 p.m.
“We just want to take that kind of momentum, you could say, by scoring the last two of the game – the empty-netter doesn’t really count – just take that into tomorrow and make sure we have a good start, because that’s kind of where we’ve gotten into trouble playing these guys,” Tyson said.