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UConn men’s hockey earns comeback win over Maine, 3-2

The Huskies erased a two-goal deficit to win two critical points in Hockey East.

Vladislav Firstov celebrates after scoring what turned out to be game-winning goal for UConn in the third period.
Ian Bethune/The UConn Blog

UConn men’s hockey scrapped and clawed its way to two massive points in Hockey East play, downing the Maine Black Bears 3-2 in Bridgeport.

Huskies fight back

Following UConn’s ugly losses against Northeastern and Merrimack, head coach Mike Cavanaugh criticized his team’s lack of mental toughness in those games, saying “we start feeling sorry for ourselves” when they go down a goal.

Wednesday looked like it might follow a similar script. Maine scored two goals in quick succession to jump ahead.

This time the Huskies fought back.

Carter Turnbull got UConn on the board late with just over a minute left in the first period by burying his own rebound with a backhanded shot past the Black Bears goaltender. Out of the first intermission, it didn’t take long to equalize. Jachym Kondelik found Alexander Payusov in front of the net, who ripped it in to tie the game.

The Huskies took the lead for good early in the final period with arguably their best goal of the season. Ruslan Iskhakov carried it into the offensive zone and dropped the puck to Jonny Evans, who hit Vladislav Firstov in front of net. The freshmen saw an opening on the back post and flipped a backhander into the cage from a tough angle all while falling down to put UConn ahead 3-2.

“Three talented players made a play to win a hockey game,” head coach Mike Cavanaugh said after the game.

UConn responded to the 2-0 deficit with three unanswered goals. For a team whose resilience was deservedly questioned, the Huskies proved they have another level under pressure, they just need to show it more consistently.

“When you get down two goals, especially a team that’s been on a losing streak, you can fold. But I thought our team hung in there,” Cavanaugh said.

Last season, the Huskies won just two games after giving up the first goal. With close to a third of its schedule still remaining, UConn won its third game this year after conceding first. Considering everything the team has gone through this year — the slow start, the infamous BC weekend, the hot stretch the close the first half and now the 0-4-1 open to the second half — Cavanaugh knows his group is battle-tested.

“They’ve been through a lot, this team,” Cavanaugh said. “We’ve been down in games before this year and have come back.”

Defense stands up

With 1:42 frozen on the clock, UConn and Maine huddled around their respective benches during the final timeout of the game. One player remained in the center of the ice: Husky goaltender Tomas Vomacka. He crouched away from the bench, staring a hole into the ice three feet away.

Vomacka had already made more than a few critical saves to keep the tying goal out but UConn would need him for one more — and it would be his toughest of the night.

Five seconds left. The Black Bears held the puck behind the net, desperately searching for an equalizer. Four seconds. Maine gets to the corner and sends a pass across the ice. Three seconds. Mitchell Fossier streaks towards the back post with the net wide open for him. Two seconds. Vomacka appears out of nowhere, sliding across the mouth of goal and taking the puck in the stomach to end the scoring threat. 1.9 ticks remained.

UConn stuffed Maine in the final seconds and the horn sounded, signaling victory.

The save certainly preserved the win for the Huskies but it also served as the cap for what Vomacka considered a bounce-back night for himself.

“I’ve been through a rough couple games. The past couples weeks,” he said. “But I knew it was going to turn around. I gotta keep working. I was working hard and if you work hard, the luck is going to come your way. Thankfully it did today. It was a huge game and I’m so happy we got it.”

However, his night was defined by more than just a singular moment. Vomacka warded off 37 of 39 shots and routinely came up with the big play to stone Maine from scoring what looked like a certain goal on numerous occasions.

“He played really, really well tonight. I thought that might’ve been his best game of the year,” Cavanaugh glowed after the game.

But while Vomacka led the team from the back, he also got help in front of him. As a team, UConn played one of its best defensive games of the season. Once they took the lead, the Huskies killed off the final 14 minutes of the game — which included two penalties in the process.

With the game on the line, the players put their bodies on the line with 15 blocks. Despite getting out-shot 16-6 in the third period, UConn refused to crack.

“Sometimes you have to put your balls out there and go and block it and eat the puck,” Vomacka said. “I’m so happy we did it for 60 and got the win.”

Ian Bethune/The UConn Blog

Two massive points

UConn’s win over Maine was big for a couple reasons. First, it gave the Huskies their first victory of the second half, snapping a five-game winless streak. But in terms of the Hockey East standings, it was a four-point win for UConn.

Going in, the Huskies were tied with the Black Bears (and UNH) in seventh place with 10 points. The win moves Cavanaugh’s squad up to 12 points, which gives them a piece sixth place while also keeping two points from Maine.

Only the top eight teams make the playoffs and just four points separate sixth place from tenth. Every point is crucial for the Huskies down the stretch, but wins against the teams around them in the standings carry even more weight. In what was close to a must-win game, UConn gutted its way to the two points.

Attendance

The official attendance for UConn’s “home” game in Bridgeport was 559 — not a typo. Five hundred nine people. The XL Center wasn’t available, which meant Webster Bank Arena was the only arena up to Hockey East standards for the Huskies to play in.

But if the attendance is going to be that abysmal, wouldn’t it be better to play the game at Freitas Ice Forum on UConn’s campus? The conference could easily provide a waiver for one single game based on extenuating circumstances. It would make a fantastic atmosphere for an important conference meeting instead of playing an hour and a half from Storrs in front of a tiny crowd.

It certainly wouldn’t be free from its own set of issues — Freitas only holds 1,650 and interest would certainly be higher if the game was held there — but those are better problems to have. Considering the game was broadcast on NESN+ and TSN in Canada, it’s a bad look for UConn, the conference and the networks when the stands are completely empty. A packed, raucous crowd at Freitas would more than make up for everything else the barn lacks.

UConn goals

Other notes

  • After giving up four shots and a goal on its first penalty, UConn’s PK unit locked down and held Maine to five shots with no goals in its next three power plays combined.
  • With a goal each on Wednesday, Firstov and Turnbull are tied with each other for the team lead in goals scored with seven.
  • The XL Center was unavailable to host the Huskies tonight because Disney on Ice needed to set up for its shows this weekend.
  • This was UConn’s sixth “home” game at Bridgeport and just the second since the 2014-15 season, when it played there four times. The Huskies hold a 3-3 record as the home squad at Webster Bank Arena.

Up next

UConn will travel to Boston for just one contest this weekend against No. 12 Northeastern. The game will be broadcast live from Matthews Arena at 4 p.m. on Saturday.