The UConn men’s hockey team opened their season on the road with a Hockey East series against Maine and earned a split at Alfond Arena, winning Saturday’s game in dominating fashion after dropping Friday’s matchup in overtime. Here are some takeaways from the first series of the season.
Alfond Arena is for real
Maine has not been a very successful program the last few seasons, but they have always been able to finish above .500 in home games while completely floundering on the road. The home-ice advantage is a huge part of that equation.
On Friday, the Black Bears scored first and the fans were able to get into the game. Once the raucous crowd got started, it did not stop until Nolan Vesey scored a great goal in overtime to send the home fans home happy.
Saturday, the crowd was essentially the same size but they weren’t able to get into the game, with the Huskies scoring two goals right at the end of a first period in which they really carried the play. Maine scored a goal early in the third to make it 3-1 and Spencer Naas was guilty of a trip on the play, sending the Black Bears to the power play, but the Huskies put a stop to any excitement with a shorthanded goal by Corey Ronan.
UConn showing early signs of resilience
On Friday, UConn tied the game from 1-0, 2-1 and 3-2, with the final game-tying goal coming with 15.9 seconds remaining. Each time they tied the game, Maine grabbed the lead again with another go-ahead goal. That the team battled back three times shows impressive resilience.
However, it was Saturday that showed why this team has a great chance to close out games more often than they did in 2016-17. On Maine’s first goal, Spencer Naas had committed a trip, which sent the Black Bears to the power play.
“It’s not a rule I’m a fan of,” UConn head coach Mike Cavanaugh said. “I think it should go back to the old way. I think it can really change the complexion of a game when you have a delayed penalty and they score and now all of a sudden they get a power play.
“If Maine scores there, now we’re really back on our heels.”
Twenty-six seconds into that penalty, Corey Ronan had scored a shorthanded goal and a Maine crowd that was starting to stir was silenced as the home team was down by three goals with less than 19 minutes to go.
“Last year I think we would have folded,” Miles Gendron said.
There’s a scorer on every forward line
Partly because of the lower-body injury to Philip Nyberg, the severity of which is not yet known, Cavanaugh switched up his defensive pairings from Friday to Saturday, but he kept the forward lines the same. Throughout the weekend, a representative from each of the four lines scored a goal.
“I think that’s the type of team we’re going to be,” Cavanaugh said. “I think we’re going to have a lot of 10-to-15 goal scorers and you can win a lot of hockey games when you spread out your scoring.”
Part of this was the team’s willingness to put the puck on net, also a change from last season. They weren’t afraid to throw pucks into defenders just to see what would happen and Gendron got two of his career-high three assists because he shot a puck through traffic and a teammate was able to put home a rebound.
“We went over it in film, just trying to get pucks to the net,” Gendron said. “I was able to get lucky on a couple.”
Keep the top two lines together.
While the scoring was balanced, the top two lines had great chemistry. On Friday, the line of Spencer Naas, Benjamin Freeman and Kasperi Ojantakanen created two of the Huskies’ three goals and looked like they had been playing together for a really long time.
“I thought they played great,” Cavanaugh said. “I thought they were dangerous all night.”
The following afternoon, the line of Karl El-Mir, Maxim Letunov and Alexander Payusov did a lot of the damage, with all three scoring in the 5-1 victory. The trio was playing together as the top unit on the power play with Johnny Austin and Gendron and they helped UConn to a 2-for-3 afternoon with the man advantage and a 3-for-9 weekend with 14 shots on net.
“They were really dangerous [Friday], but tonight I thought they moved the puck and got chances,” Cavanaugh said.
UConn (1-1-0, 1-1-0) begins their non-conference slate on Friday against American International College in Springfield, Massachusetts. Puck drop is slated for 7:05 p.m.