The UConn men’s hockey team was on its heels after two periods in its first live action of the 2017-’17 season as St. Francis Xavier handed the Huskies a loss in their only preseason game, 4-3.
Spencer Naas, Justin Howell, and Tage Thompson scored the goals for the Huskies with Johnny Austin, Corey Ronan, Benjamin Freeman, Joe Masonius and Alexander Payusov recording assists. Freshman goaltender Adam Huska took the loss, allowing three goals in the second period.
UConn finished 1-for-6 on the power play and killed four of the five power plays following penalties which they committed, including a five-minute high-sticking by Wyatt Newpower.
“For an exhibition, where we have really only had 11 practices, and not even full practices, that was exactly what we wanted,” head coach Mike Cavanaugh said. “That’s one of the best teams in Canada.”
Captain Derek Pratt was pleased with the team’s effort, as well.
“I thought we competed hard,” he said. “We can be better on the breakout, getting through the neutral zone and getting in-zone time.”
The first period saw the Huskies shake off some rust. Multiple times the puck seemed to just drift off of UConn sticks, especially on the breakout and in the offensive zone.
The Huskies played very well on the defensive end, allowing eight shots, with most coming from the perimeter. Rob Nichols played in net for the first period, stopped seven, including some of the most dangerous chances. St. Francis scored off a face-off.
UConn started to put it together offensively in the second period. The line of Maxim Letunov, Thompson and Alexander Payusov had a very nice tick-tack-toe passing opportunity early on, but goaltender Chase Marchand made the save.
A few minutes later, 6:50 into the second period, Naas tied the game with a power-play goal. The puck came to him right in the middle of the slot and he got off a shot while spinning and tumbling down. The assists went to Johnny Austin and Corey Ronan.
The onslaught from St. Francis came next, however, as the X-men (yes, for real) scored three unanswered goals. Huska, who played the second period in goal, allowed a juicy rebound 10 minutes in and Kristoff Kontos was there to shove it in for a 2-1 lead. At 14:39, Kontos struck again when another puck squirted away from Huska in the middle of a scrum in front of the goal.
Jeff Wight took a minor penalty at 18:13 for interference and just 11 seconds later St. Francis made the Huskies pay. Michael Clarke took a wrist shot from the left point, just inside the wall, and it got through a screen for a goal to give St. Francis Xavier a 4-1 lead after two periods. Huska faced 16 shots, making 13 saves.
Tanner Creel stepped in at goal for UConn in the third period as the Huskies mounted a comeback, though it got off to a bad start.
Freshman Wyatt Newpower committed a game misconduct and a major penalty for high sticking 2:59 into the third period. The Huskies did an extraordinary job of keeping chances down and avoided falling behind by more.
“I thought we really tilted that ice in the last portion of that third period,” Cavanaugh said.
Freshman forward Howell got on the board after he found himself alone to the right of goal on the red line. His shot from a sharp angle made it a 4-2 game. The goal came unassisted 11:51 into the third period.
“I thought [the third period] was our best period,” Pratt said. “We had some substantial zone time, were better on the breakout and were clean through the neutral zone.”
Just over three minutes later, Tage Thompson took a feed from Joe Masonius and put a wrist shot behind Marchand to make it a one-goal game 14:55 into the third period. Alexander Payusov earned the second assist.
Unfortunately, UConn was unable to complete the comeback as time expired before the Huskies could tie it up.
This loss does not mean very much for the Huskies, given that they used four different goalies and had not had much time together. It’s fairly common for these Canadian teams, who generally have older, stronger players who have been playing together for longer, to beat the American college teams which skew younger. There’s still plenty to be excited about when this season starts next weekend.
NOTES: David Drake and Spencer Naas were named assistant captains before the game. Drake (knee) did not play and his status for the opener is unknown... The Huskies get the season going for real on Friday when they welcome Alabama-Huntsville into the XL Center. Puck drop comes at 7:05 p.m.