The UConn Huskies' season comes to an end at the hands of the Vermont Catamounts in the opening round of the Hockey East Tournament. Despite leading by one goal after the second period, UConn allowed two goals in the final stanza, falling 4-3 at the XL Center.
UConn got on the board first, with Joey Ferris making a nice effort behind the net to create some space and find Karl El-Mir in front of the net who wristed the puck past Vermont goalie Mike Santaguida. Unfortunately, Vermont answered back with two goals separated by three minutes to take a lead into the first intermission.
Two UConn penalties gave Vermont a 5-on-3 which elicited a lot of chances for the Catamounts. Mario Puskarich fired one past Rob Nichols shortly after the first penalty expired to tie the game. Vermont surged ahead when a Conor O'Neil shot took an unlucky bounce off a Husky defender and into the net.
The Huskies tied it up early in the second period on an amazing effort from Karl El-Mir. Words will not do it justice.
UConn took the lead later in the second with a Tage Thompson power play goal. Armed with a 5-on-3 advantage, Max Letunov skated to the center and sent a backhand feed to Thompson who fired a laser into the net. The Huskies would take that lead into the second intermission. Letunov had some other nice setups across the game that the Huskies were regrettably unable to score.
The third period went back and forth, with both teams trading chances until a hit on Shawn Pauly led to an odd-man rush which Vermont converted, with Yvan Pattyn going top shelf on Nichols.
The game appeared to be heading to overtime until some sloppy play by UConn in the neutral zone led to a 2-on-1 chance for Vermont. Brian Bowen tried to send a pass across the goal but a Husky defender had his stick down and blocked it, the puck slid right back to Bowen who fired it past Nichols for the go-ahead goal with 1:19 remaining.
It is a horribly bitter way to lose, especially after such a solid effort last night, also in defeat. With the season over, Mike Cavanaugh hopes that the players use the experience to gain a better understanding of how to succeed in the playoff environment.
"We're building, the majority of our team is freshmen and sophomores who haven't played in a playoff series like that with that much intensity," Cavanaugh said after the game. "Last year we were holding on for dear life. This year we were in both games, they were hard-fought games.
"It's hard to win in the playoffs... especially these first rounds... maybe we lack a little composure that maybe experience will help us with down the line."
Despite the sour ending, UConn's second year in Hockey East was unquestionably a success. The Huskies did well to finish eighth in a hard league in the regular season and played a very competitive two games in the postseason even though both were losses. Given how young the roster is, with key contributions coming mostly from freshmen and sophomores, the ascent should continue through next season, assuming the NHL doesn't interfere.
"Those freshman, they're as good as anybody in college I've seen- they're like pros," Vermont head coach Kevin Sneddon said after the game, referring to Thompson and Letunov. "Just their size, their poise for freshman, they're a very difficult line."
Many youngsters besides Letunov and Thompson have a lot of promise. Freshmen like Karl El-Mir, who scored twice tonight, along with Max Kalter, Joe Masonius, Miles Gendron, and sophomores Corey Ronan, Spencer Naas, David Drake, Kasperi Ojantakanen, and Derek Pratt, an assistant captain, are all very talented players who comprise a strong core. Next year's team will also enjoy the senior leadership of goalie Rob Nichols, defensemen Ryan Segalla and Joona Kunnas, and forward Evan Richardson.