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UConn men’s hockey upsets No. 12 Northeastern, 3-2

The Huskies’ best performance of the season is rewarded with a big win.

Ian Bethune/The UConn Blog

UConn men’s hockey battled out a 3-2 overtime victory over the No. 12 Northeastern Huskies, 3-2. UConn got a pair of goals from freshman Vladislav Firstov in regulation while Benjamin Freeman scored the game-winner in overtime.

Note: Any mention of “Huskies” is in reference to UConn, not Northeastern.

Redemption

Almost two weeks ago, UConn and Northeastern played to a drastically different result at the XL Center when Northeastern ran away with a 5-2 win. UConn was never in it and was outplayed by Northeastern in every facet of the game from the first puck drop.

Saturday night was a different story. UConn out-shot Northeastern 44-37 — tied for its second-most shots in a game this year. While three goals against a ranked team is impressive enough, UConn could’ve had more if not for a phenomenal performance from the Northeastern goaltender Craig Pantano.

“That was one of our emphases tonight, pucks and bodies to the blue paint,” head coach Mike Cavanaugh told the assembled media postgame. “I thought we did a good job and got a lot of really good scoring chances. As I said, I gotta give credit to Pantano. I thought he was excellent tonight.”

The stark contrast between the two games is an appropriate representation of UConn’s season. It’s capable of poor performances like the 5-2 beatdown but when UConn’s on its game, it can skate with and beat the exact same team just two weeks later.

Vomacka stands out

After a big performance Wednesday night to lead UConn to victory over Maine, goaltender Tomas Vomacka followed it up with another strong night to help the Ice Bus past Northeastern. The Czech made 35 saves on 37 and shots routinely stoned dangerous shots from the home team.

“He was just as good (as he was against Maine),” Cavanaugh said.

Vomacka was active in net, making all kinds of saves from acrobatic dives to tough stops while getting screened. It’s been a welcome turnaround for the netminder, whose play dipped around the midway point. He was let in softer goals than he normally allows and didn’t seem totally right on the ice.

But his past two games, Vomacka looked like his early-season self that kept the Huskies in a lot of games. If he can keep this level of play up, UConn will rarely be out of a game down the stretch, even if the team isn’t firing on all cylinders.

Approaching full potential

Just as Boston College represented a turning point in the first half of UConn’s season, the embarrassing loss to Merrimack appears to be the cross roads of the second half. The Huskies were outplayed by one of the worst teams in the nation, beaten just as badly as the 6-2 score line indicates.

UConn had two options: Fold or fight. The Huskies again chose fight and played competitively a tough Providence team before earning two close wins against Maine and now Northeastern. Losses in either game would’ve been demoralizing. Instead, UConn made plays when it needed to for the victories.

UConn’s performance against Northeastern is a better indication of what kind of team this is than the Merrimack game was. UConn has plenty of talent and ability, it just needed to re-find its identity. Now, UConn is learning how to win close hockey games and it’s doing so against really good teams.

There’s still a lot of season left — 14 regular season games to be exact. If UConn can keep up this level and avoid regression to its early-season form, the Huskies will be well-positioned in the Hockey East standings come playoff time. Though UConn sits eighth in the conference (the final spot in the playoffs) in points per game, it won’t be there by the end of the year if it keeps this level of play up.

At this point, the Huskies are beyond the point of just hoping for wins against top-ranked teams. UConn can dictate its own play and not worry about matching up talent-wise. If the Huskies can maintain this level in the final two months, UConn is more than capable of making some noise come the postseason.

UConn goals

Other notes

  • UConn improves to 2-5-2 against ranked teams this season with both wins coming on the road. Outside Boston College, every ranked opponent the Huskies have faced this season has been No. 12 in the nation.
  • This is first time this season that UConn hasn’t tied a game that went to overtime. The previous four games that went past regulation all ended in ties.
  • With a pair of goals, Firstov takes sole possession of the team lead in goals (9) and points (16).
  • If Firstov continues his current scoring pace through the end of the regular season, he’ll challenge Maxim Letunov for the school’s Division I freshman goal scoring record. Firstov is on pace for 15.3 goals while Letunov scored 16 back in 2015-16.
  • New goaltender Matt Pasquale hasn’t joined the team yet and will likely have to wait until the new semester begins to do so, per NCAA rules.