HARTFORD — Tanner Creel ably stepped in for injured goaltender Rob Nichols Friday night, but a bit of bad luck in front of him plagued a great performance.
UConn fought back to tie Friday night's game with 7:05 to play, but strange bounces and a few miscues in the offensive end cost the Huskies in a 4-2 loss to Vermont at the XL Center in front of 6,442 fans.
Creel made 30 saves for the Huskies. Nichols suffered a high ankle sprain in Saturday's 1-1 tie at Maine. He is out at least for the weekend and could possibly miss the Sacred Heart game Tuesday. Creel, a former backup at Army who played in the NAHL and the USPHL last year, found out he was getting the nod against Vermont after practice Thursday.
"I knew this year that Rob was probably going to be playing most of the year, and I wanted to be the guy who stepped in when he couldn't," Creel said. "That chance came today, and I just wanted to make the most of it and give the team a chance to win."
Creel stepped up, stopping several Vermont chances with Nichols-like reflexes and ability. He stood strong on rushes, pushed pucks away from the net and never looked like a backup. He was unlucky on a couple chances that got past him.
"We didn't lose because our goaltender didn't make saves, that's for sure," Cavanaugh said.
Tage Thompson scored the equalizer late, burying a rebound with the backhand from a difficult low angle, a fair reward for a hard-fought power play by the Huskies. With the XL Center still buzzing, UConn went for the win, but Vermont scored on a rush with 4:29 to play. Brendan Bradley trailed behind Mario Puskarich and buried a rebound past Creel for his eighth goal of the season.
"We had a chance to win the game," head coach Mike Cavanaugh said. "We tied the game, and we were pressing. WE had a great offensive zone face-off there, and we made a mental mistake on that offensive zone face-off. They come down on a bouncing puck, again, and we didn't get sticks in front of the net."
Maxim Letunov opened the scoring for UConn 10:38 into the first period, finishing a backhand effort on a feed from Joseph Masonius at the end of a nice rush. The Huskies were looking good at that point, but Vermont held a 13-7 shot advantage after the first period.
The Catamounts took control with a weird 30-second predicament for UConn in the second period. After Vermont won a face-off, Chris Muscoby dumped the puck into the zone off the deep boards. Creel went behind the net to chorale it, a normal action for a goaltender. However, the puck took a crazy bounce off the boards and jetted out toward the net. Creel could not recover in time to stop the puck, and the Catamounts tied it up. The sophomore goaltender called it a learning experience, saying he should have waited to see where the puck was going to end up. Cavanaugh saw it differently.
"That puck hit so far down on the stanchion that I think you have to play it that way all the time," Cavanaugh said. "Sometimes, every now and then, when it hits halfway between the goal line and the blue line, it takes a bad bounce. I was shocked when the puck went in. It hit so far down on the stanchion. I don't think you can beat yourself up over that."
Vermont scored again 28 seconds later, when Creel tried to collect a loose puck in front, but was beat to it by Travis Blanleil, who pushed it through Creel's legs. In the midst of confusion about the previous play, UConn fell behind 2-1.
UConn had even fewer chances in the second period than in the first, putting only five shots on goal.
"They frustrated us on breaking the puck out of the zone," Cavanaugh said. "Their forecheck frustrated us. I thought we were playing in our zone so much...That was kind of the focus of our team: we were going to get more pucks to the net. That's just not enough in a period."
UConn doubled its shot total for the night in the third period, putting 12 shots on goaltender Packy Munson. Most of those shots came in the middle of the period, when UConn's power play bombarded Munson.
The Huskies had five power plays Friday night, going 1-for-5, the goal coming near the end of the final penalty of the game, a holding on Jonathan Turk that led to a 5-on-3 for about 30 seconds. Thompson's goal was his 10th of the season, the ninth on a power play, which leads the nation.
After missing a chance to separate itself from the bottom of the pack in Hockey East, UConn has the difficult task of traveling to Chestnut Hill for a matchup with No. 4 Boston College Saturday night. The Eagles cruised past UMass Friday night, winning 8-0. In the process, Jerry York became the first head coach in college hockey history to amass 1,000 career wins.
Cavanaugh coached under York at Boston College for 18 years and for one season at Bowling Green. Together, they won four national championships in 10 Frozen Four appearances, nine Hockey East Tournament titles and six regular season league titles.
"It's a great accomplishment," Cavanaugh said. "It's truly remarkable. To average 20 wins a year for 50 years. Who does anything for 50 years? And to be that successful at doing it is just amazing. I'm happy for him."
Photo gallery credits: Ian Bethune/The UConn Blog