In a weekend where UConn Men's Hockey claimed three out of four points on the road, moved from tenth to sixth in the Hockey East standings, and freshman phenom Max Letunov scored potentially the prettiest goal of the year, Rob Nichols was the big story.
In a scintillating performance in the first game on Friday night, reminiscent of the second game against UNH in the 2014 Hockey East Tournament, Nichols became the first goalie in program history to record back-to-back shutouts. Following a tapped-in goal by senior Shawn Pauly at the 6:24 mark of the first period, an opportunity created by a wild Letunov shot attempt from his knees, Maine dominated play the rest of the evening.
Nichols faced 21 shots in the second period. His best save came on a breakaway chance created when freshman Joe Masonius was unable to keep the puck in the offensive zone on a power play. Maine forward Brendan Robbins raced down the ice, cut to his left across goal and went to his backhand. Nichols managed to slide to his right and made a beautiful pad save to keep Maine off the scoreboard.
UConn also benefitted from some good luck. Later in the second, Robbins had another golden opportunity to tie the game when Nichols was out of position leaving a wide open net. However, Robbins slid the puck across the goal mouth to the right.
It was mind boggling that UConn was able to survive the second period without allowing a goal.
There was no respite for UConn when the third period began. Once again, Maine pinned the Huskies in their own zone and bombarded Nichols with shots. Again, Nichols stonewalled Robbins on a scoring opportunity, this time by just getting enough of his glove on the shot to force the puck wide.
When the final horn sounded the Black Bears had attempted 81 shots, with 44 finding their way to Nichols. It was the most saves Nichols has had as a member of the Huskies as they prevailed 1-0 in the weekend opener.
Nichols starred in the second game as well. UConn was able to get good pressure in the Maine end on their first few shifts. However, the Black Bears established themselves later in the period and began controlling play. The first big test came for Nichols came after a misplay by sophomore defenseman David Drake led to a point-blank opportunity for Maine's Nolan Vesey. Nichols stood tall and the game remained scoreless.
At the 15:40 mark, Nichols denied forward Brian Morgan on a scoring opportunity from no more than five feet away. The first period ended 0-0.
Maine got on the scoreboard first in the second period. With Maine defenseman Mark Hamilton in the box for interference, UConn went on the power play. While handling the puck on the left point, Masonius attempted a weak backhand pass to Tage Thompson along the boards. Maine senior Steven Swavely tipped the pass out of the zone and managed to use his speed to gain the advantage over Masonius. Swivels showed Nichols his forehand but quickly switched to his backhand while cutting across to the left. The puck managed to make its way over the diving Nichols and Maine had a 1-0 lead.
Nichols' shutout streak ended at 162:21.
The Huskies needed to find an equalizer. Following a forearm shiver to the head by Maine's Hamilton on Max Kalter, which could have easily been a 5 minute major, the Huskies found themselves on the power play at the 2:46 mark of the second period. With only a couple quality chances on the night, it seemed as though Max Letunov knew this might be the best scoring opportunity for the Huskies.
Backtracking to UConn's blue line, Letunov picked up the puck and gracefully weaved through Maine's entire power play unit as though they were set up in a 1-2-1 zone. He then swooped across Maine goalie Matt Morris' crease and backhanded the puck into the net. It was a downright beautiful goal worthy of a highlight reel.
The joy of Letunov's amazing goal was short-lived, however, as UConn suddenly saw its greatest fear come to reality.
Less than two minutes later following two quick saves, there was a pileup on the side of the UConn net. Maine forward Dane Gibson fell on top of Nichols and trapped Nichols' left leg underneath him. It had the look of a season-ending injury.
Eventually, Nichols managed to get to his feet but he was noticeably favoring his left knee. Surprisingly, he stayed in the game and managed to make a tremendous save on Maine's Brian Morgan.
At the 8:07 mark, backup goalie Tanner Creel entered the game for Nichols. Three minutes later, Nichols returned to the ice, inspiring his teammates to finish the night strong. After each save, it was noticeable Nichols was suffering but he managed to hold the Black Bears scoreless through both the third and overtime periods. The game finished a 1-1 tie.
Due to Nichols' tremendous and gutsy performance over the weekend, UConn now finds itself sitting sixth in Hockey East, although most teams behind them have games in hand.
Hockey East standings after the #icebus picked up 3 out of 4 points this past weekend in Maine. pic.twitter.com/LK404a5vwH— TheUConnBlog (@TheUConnBlog) January 17, 2016