DURHAM, N.H. – After UConn’s loss to New Hampshire in Game 1 of the Hockey East playoffs Friday night, Rob Nichols was eager to get back in the net, saying that the best players up their game with the season on the line.
Games cannot be upped much more than Nichols’ was Saturday.
The Huskies’ sophomore goaltender made a career-high 42 saves in Game 2 at the Whittemore Center, but two late goals gave the Wildcats a 2-0 win, ending UConn’s historic first season in Hockey East.
UNH finally broke Nichols with 8:58 to play in the third period. Fourth-line winger Jamie Hill made a quick move past the UConn defense and gained the zone on a breakaway. Nichols stuffed him on the backhand effort, but the puck bounced out to the slot. Ryan Segalla tried to force the puck away, but Kyle Smith was able to push it into the net. The goal was confirmed after a review.
“It was in front of me and then I don’t know what happened after that,” Nichols said. “I think maybe there was just a collision, and I guess it was in. (The officials) said they looked at everything.”
With about two-and-a-half minutes to play, Nichols started looking for chances to get to the net. They did not come, as UNH refused to give away the puck long enough for the Huskies to get a sixth skater on the ice.
With about a minute left, Nichols thought he finally had the chance, but the Wildcats quickly got the puck into the UConn zone. Nichols tried to collect the puck behind the net, but turned it over, leading to a series of passes that set Grayson Downing up to beat Nichols over the shoulder and seal the win for UNH with 47 seconds to play.
Nichols stood on his head for long stretches of the game, especially in the second and third periods, making save after miraculous save. His glove and blocker frustrated the Wildcats all night.
Defending against a slew of power plays in the second period, Nichols robbed Downing on what looked like a wide-open shot from the slot. In a Brodeur-like motion, Nichols sprawled across the crease and gloved the shot.
“He was outstanding. He’s been that way all year long,” head coach Mike Cavanaugh said. “He’s been solid all year long. And he’s a member of our team. That’s why when some people say, ‘They’ve got a great goalie, but I don’t know how good their team is,’ I don’t buy that, because your goaltender is part of your team.”
The Huskies had a few good chances to score, particularly through Patrick Kirtland, who let fly a couple shots from the left circle that nearly beat Danny Tirone. But the Wildcats applied most of the pressure.
UConn started the game with the same energy as Friday, trying to tilt the ice in its favor as early as possible, but UNH was able to force the issue. The Wildcats ended up outshooting the Huskies 44-19.
“I think we did a good job, from the forwards and the D to Robbie in net, to – we bent, but didn’t break down there,” senior forward Trevor Gerling said. “We stayed tight as a group. We weathered some storms. We just have to score some goals there.”
Things got choppy for the Huskies in the second period, when they had to kill off four UNH power plays. The penalty kill unit looked far more effective than it did Friday night – when the Wildcats scored three power play goals – but the constant defending with only four skaters on the ice crippled UConn.
“We did a terrific job killing their penalties, but it took a lot of wind out of our sails in that second period,” Cavanaugh said. “I think we spent so much energy killing penalties. We got outshot 19-3 in that period, and I think a large portion of it was we spent…roughly around eight minutes killing penalties.”
UConn finishes the season with a 10-19-7 record. After being picked to finish 12th in Hockey East, the Huskies finished ninth, racking up wins over No. 3 Boston College, No. 11 Vermont and No 6 UMass Lowell.
In non-conference play, UConn earned wins against No. 15 Quinnipiac and reigning national champion Union.
UConn’s record is hardly indicative of the season that was. The 2014-15 campaign served an important role, laying the foundation for long-term success.
“This program will compete for championships,” Cavanaugh said. “And when we do, I’m going to pick up the phone and call Trevor Gerling, and Ryan Tyson, and the rest of that senior class and thank them for being the building blocks for getting us to that point, because they really set the tone this year on how we want to play the game.
“We weren’t as successful as we wanted to be in this playoff series, but I think we had a pretty successful year. There weren’t many games where we didn’t compete, and tonight was another one of them.”