In its season opener, UConn men’s hockey fell on the road to the No. 7 UMass Minutemen, 5-1.
UMass scored a power play goal to go up 1-0 early on but the Huskies responded with a skillful goal from Kale Howarth (assisted by Jonny Evans and Cassidy Bowes) in the latter half of the first period. However, the Minutemen then scored four unanswered goals — including two in the final 2:31. UConn goaltender Tomas Vomacka made 41 saves on the night as his effort kept the Huskies close deep into the third period.
On Friday night, the impact of a long offseason and a hectic preseason was apparent. The Huskies were disjointed most of the night and never settled into a groove on either end of the ice. Though UMass wasn’t in top form either, it grew into the game as the night went on — something that didn’t happen for UConn.
“I thought for three periods we were thoroughly outplayed by UMass tonight,” head coach Mike Cavanaugh said. “I give a lot of credit to their team. I thought they out-skated us, they were more physical and they were better on special teams. They were able to do that for 60 minutes and they deserved to win the game.”
On offense, the Huskies gave the puck away too easily and didn’t respond well against UMass pressure. UConn didn’t record double-digit shots in any period and its shots per period decreased as the game went on from nine in the first to seven to six.
“We did not take care of the puck in the neutral zone and it really came back to haunt us,” Cavanaugh said. “We didn’t take care of the puck but I thought UMass put a lot of pressure on us and forced us to make ill-advised plays,” he added later.
The Minutemen jumped out to a 17-1 advantage in shots in large part thanks to an early 5-on-3 power play opportunity that resulted in their first goal. From then on, shots were relatively even, though the Huskies always felt like they were chasing the game, even after Howarth tied it at one.
“I don’t think we were very good,” Cavanaugh said. “I do think we are a better team than what we showed tonight. No question about it, but it’s going to be a quick turnaround. We’re gonna have to find a way to be much better tomorrow if we want to win a hockey game.”
Differences in preparation show
On Thursday, Cavanaugh described his team’s preseason as “fractured”, saying it lacked structure and fluidity. He also noted he didn’t think his team was in great shape because of various quarantines and shutdowns.
UMass head coach Greg Carvel said his team hasn’t had a single positive test since returning to campus, giving them three months of uninterrupted workouts and practice.
Each team’s preparation (or lack thereof) showed on the ice.
“I think we’re fortunate that we made it through this entire fall without any shutdowns which allowed us to really continue pushing our players,” Carvel said. “We looked like we were game shape ready, which we were hoping was going to be an advantage for us, especially early on and I thought it was tonight.”
Penalties pile up
With UConn still working to full fitness, it’s no surprise the team struggled with penalties. Cavanaugh has said in the past that stick penalties are a result of playing not skating hard enough. The Huskies were whistled for six penalties total — two of which were particularly damaging.
In the first period, Brian Rigali went to the box for hitting from behind just 14 seconds into a Jachym Kondelik penalty which gave UMass a 1:46 5-on-3 opportunity that eventually lead to the first goal of the night. Late in the third with UConn trailing by 3-1, Marc Gatcomb erased a power play after eight seconds with a trip. That also led to a Minutemen goal — one that put the Huskies away for good.
“We took a penalty we shouldn’t take. I mean, an unnecessary penalty to put us down 5-on-3,” Cavanaugh said of Rigali’s infraction. “Typically, we’re a pretty disciplined team and we weren’t in that instance. In fact, I thought that was a problem tonight. I thought we took three penalties that were undisciplined penalties and against the team like that, they’re going to make you pay.”
UConn’s penalty kill actually played well despite the stat sheet showing it gave up two goals on six power play chances. The Huskies survived the long 5-on-3 — in large part thanks to stellar play in net from Vomacka — but couldn’t hold for the final 11 seconds of the second penalty.
Other than that, UConn made plenty of 200-foot clearances and didn’t allow UMass to set up in the offensive zone and pepper shots on net. The Minutemen’s second power play goal came seconds after a 4-on-4 expired.
On the other end, the Huskies’ power play went 0-5 but Cavanaugh felt they generated some dangerous chances. Ultimately, he was more disappointed in the penalties than the special teams’ performance.
“I thought our power play was pretty good. We had some great chances and we just didn’t score,” Cavanaugh said. “I thought our penalty kill was okay, but at the end of the day, they get two special teams goals and we got zero, so it’s a results driven business and we got to find ways to score goals and keep them out of our net.”
Conference play...or not?
As of now, this series won’t count towards the Hockey East standings, though that’s subject to change. This is the conference’s official statement:
January’s originally scheduled games are conference games. However, if those games were to be moved or changed, the games played tonight will then be considered conference games.
UConn and UMass will play the second matchup of their series tomorrow at the Freitas Ice Forum in Storrs. Puck drop is set for 4 p.m. with SportsLive streaming the action for free. No fans or media will be allowed into the rink for the game.