In its first game at Freitas Ice Forum in 2,443 days, UConn men’s hockey pulled off a late comeback and defeated the No. 7 UMass Minutemen in a shootout by a final score of 2-2 (2-1 shootout).
However, the Huskies’ “victory” tonight will initially go into the record books as a tie since this series is viewed as a non-conference game by Hockey East. If the UConn’s series with UMass in January gets canceled, these two games will then be counted towards the Hockey East standings.
New to Hockey East this season, shootouts will be used to decide a winner if no team scores during a five-minute, 3-on-3 overtime period. For games decided in overtime or by a shootout, the winner will receive two points while the loser will get one.
Back and forth affair
The Minutemen jumped out to a two-goal lead over UConn with a strong first period. However, the Huskies found their footing towards the end of the first 20 minutes and played even with the visitors over the final two periods.
Carter Turnbull brought UConn within one midway through the third period with a skillful backhanded goal into the top shelf before Brian Rigali buried a shorthanded goal off a rebound with two minutes left in regulation to tie the game.
In overtime, UMass thought it scored a game-winner late in overtime only to have the officials review the play and determine the Minutemen had too many men on the ice, thus overturning the goal.
After five minutes of extra time, the two teams went to a shootout. Each side found the back of the net on their first attempts but missed their next two chances. After Tomas Vomacka made yet another save, Kale Howarth buried his chance to give UConn a 2-1 shootout victory.
Huskies flip the script
Chasing a one-goal deficit, UMass gifted the Huskies an opportunity to equalize midway through the third period. With 20 seconds left on a UConn power play, two Minutemen were sent to the box for tripping. That gave UConn a 2:20-long 5-on-3 advantage and with it, a prime chance to tie the game at two.
But the Huskies couldn’t capitalize and the 5-on-3 ran out with UMass’ 2-1 advantage still intact. To make matters even worse for UConn, freshman forward Hudson Schandor went to the box for boarding shortly after, which meant the Minutemen would have an extra skater for two of the final three minutes.
That should’ve been the final nail in the coffin for the Huskies. But the team didn’t panic and had a simple message for itself during an ensuing timeout.
“We sat down and we said as a club, ‘Listen, don’t be disappointed about the 5-on-3,’” UConn head coach Mike Cavanaugh said. “‘Nobody says we can’t score a penalty kill goal. There’s not a rule that says you can’t score on the penalty kill.”
So midway through the penalty, freshman forward Cassidy Bowes found himself skating free down the ice with just one defender between he and senior forward Brian Rigali. Bowes fired a shot at UMass goaltender Filip Lindberg, who deflected it right into the path of Rigali.
The senior just managed to get his stick on the puck and sent it into the net to bring UConn even at 2-2 with exactly two minutes to play. Though it seemed like a simple put-back in real time, Rigali explained that it was far more complex than that.
“I just tried to drive the net and I saw right away, as [Bowes] has the puck, the D did a nice job, he pretty much took away the pass, so at that point I’m just focusing my eyes on the goalies’ pads,” Rigali said. “It came out pretty hot so it just hit my palm and then I had to get a stick on it at all costs because it wouldn’t have counted obviously if I did not.”
UConn survives rocky first period
Much of the first period on Saturday resembled the series opener. UMass scored an early power play goal and doubled its lead nine minutes later. UConn looked to be in danger of getting run off the ice, but Vomacka came up big on numerous occasions to keep his side close.
“I thought last night UMass came out and punched us in the mouth and they did it again in the first period,” Cavanaugh said. “It was almost like a carbon copy of what happened last night. They were completely out playing us.”
The Huskies struggled to clear the puck out of the defensive end and turned it over far too often against UMass’ pressure in the neutral zone. Even when UConn did get in on net, it usually only got one shot off before the Minutemen were racing back the other way.
Part of the Huskies’ early struggles also came from the face-off circle. In the first period, UMass won 14 of 17 draws which meant UConn was constantly on its back foot.
“When you lose 14 of 17 face offs, you’re chasing the game,” Cavanaugh said. “They have the puck and you’re chasing it and that’s not how we want to play. We want to pressure and we want to put people on their heels and we weren’t able to do that.”
The Huskies finally settled towards the end of the first period and started to play the Minutemen even for the first time all weekend. Cavanaugh said there weren’t tactical moves or changes to the game plan. If anything, it seemed like UConn finally got up to game speed four periods into the season after a chaotic and choppy preseason.
“Our guys finally just started to skate and compete and win puck battles and that’s what this game is,” Cavanaugh said.
Despite such lopsided play, the Huskies only went into the intermission trailing 2-0 with just two fewer shots than the Minutemen. Over the final two periods, UConn held with UMass and even carried play at times.
The Huskies did just enough to stay within striking distance which helped them to pull off a late comeback for the second time in as many home games against the Minutemen.
Assuming all goes according to plan (a big assumption in these times), UConn will host the Maine Black Bears for two games at Freitas Ice Forum next weekend. Maine did not play this weekend due to school COVID protocols, which is what allowed the Huskies to face UMass.