Before this season, the last time Tanner Creel stepped on the ice for the UConn Huskies was in a 5-2 loss at home to Northeastern on Feb. 19, 2016, when starter Rob Nichols was out with an ankle injury.
With the emergence of freshman Adam Huska in addition to the incumbent starter Nichols, Creel spent the entirety of the next season on the bench except for the final minutes of an exhibition game.
Creel earned his diploma this past May, but still had a year of eligibility and had a decision to make. He could come back to the team as a graduate student and play behind Huska or he could move on to his post-UConn life. The senior from Arlington Heights, Illinois chose to stay in Storrs.
“It shows what type of guy he is,” senior forward Max Kalter said. “He’s a character guy, he’s great in the locker room.”
Before this past weekend, he had only played in sporadic non-conference action, getting two starts he did not complete and twice entering the game in relief of Huska. He had a goals-against average of 6.80 and a .763 save percentage, clearly struggling in his limited time on the ice.
Huska, who had started all but two of UConn’s 25 games heading into their series with No. 10 Providence, sprained the wrist on his catching hand, pushing Creel into a starting role.
The Friars put two behind Creel in the first five minutes and got another one before the first period was through.
“I wasn’t worried going into the game,” head coach Mike Cavanaugh said. “I was worried after those two went in.”
However, Creel settled in, knowing that he would not get pulled for Huska. He saved all 17 of the shots he faced the rest of the game, making some impressive stops, keeping the Huskies in it in what became a 3-1 loss.
“It wasn’t the start we were looking for as a team and for him to rebound like that, he played awesome,” senior forward Spencer Naas said. “He didn’t give up another goal for the rest of the night. He’s a really tough kid and we had confidence in him back there.”
Cavanaugh did not pull the trigger on a replacement—freshman Bradley Stone was available on the bench—and Creel repaid that confidence with a sparkling performance in the road victory over Providence two days later.
Creel made 26 saves on 27 shots against a prolific Friar offense, getting the Huskies their first win against Providence as members of Hockey East.
“Coming in like that after a rough couple of games shows great mental toughness,” senior defenseman Johnny Austin said. “It’s huge to see him get that win.”
Creel had a rough start to this year after a long layoff from competition and showed resilience last weekend across the two games, showing the outside world what his teammates believed all along.
“He’s the most mentally tough guy on the team,” Kalter said. “He was at Army for a year.”
Creel will also be between the pipes on Friday on the road against New Hampshire, and possibly longer.
“He’s a really good goaltender,” Cavanaugh said. “He’s going to be good for us.”