In the regular season finale, UConn men’s hockey fell to the UMass Lowell River Hawks, 3-1.
Huskies lose home ice
Entering the game, UConn only needed a win or a tie to lock up a top-four spot in the Hockey East standings, which would’ve meant hosting the quarterfinals of the playoffs next weekend. The loss hurt the Huskies’ chances, but it didn’t end them. Maine goaltender Jeremy Swayman did.
After the defeat, UConn needed Providence to beat or tie the Black Bears while Northeastern needed to just not get swept by BU. The other Huskies lost 3-0 on Friday night though they still had another chance on Saturday.
But up in Orono, Maine, despite putting twice as many shots on net (48-24), Providence just couldn’t find the back of the net to help UConn out. Maine finally broke the deadlock at the 9:21 mark of the third period and weathered the storm until the final horn sounded to earn the win and lock up home ice.
Now, the Huskies’ rooting interests change. Maine secured the fourth spot which means the fifth-place team will have to make the long trek up to Alfond Arena for the playoffs. But sixth place would mean only having to go to UMass Lowell, not only a shorter trip but an easier place to play overall.
With its regular season games complete, UConn should be rooting for BU tonight to finish off the sweep of Northeastern and drop the local Huskies to sixth place.
As much as Friday night’s loss in Lowell will hurt, it shouldn’t be viewed as the only reason UConn lost home ice. While the Huskies controlled their own fate, the standings are so compact that they needed just one point to finish in the top four.
But UConn’s series record of 1-2-0 against 10th place Merrimack (who finished 7-14-3 in the conference) proved to be fatal, especially considering both losses came at the XL Center. The Huskies needed just one point in two games against the team ranked 46 of 60 in Pairwise, but ultimately couldn’t come through. Those performances are where the blame should lie, not Friday night.
Special teams make the difference
Coming in, UConn ranked in the top ten nationally as one of the least penalized teams in the country — a necessity considering it featured the second-worst penalty kill in the nation at just 74 percent.
But the Huskies went to the box six times in the game, giving the River Hawks more than enough opportunities with an extra skater. UMass Lowell capitalized twice — once in each of the first two periods — which ultimately proved to be the difference.
In the first period, the River Hawks came through the neutral zone and Kenny Hausinger fired a perfect centering pass to an open Andre Lee, who one-touched it past Vomacka for the 1-0 lead.
“On their first power play goal, they made a nice play through the neutral zone,” head coach Mike Cavanaugh said. “We missed an assignment there. They made a nice play.”
Later, UConn goaltender Tomas Vomacka stopped an initial shot from the blue line but the puck bounced to the side, where Sam Knoblauch jumped the rebound and doubled UMass Lowell’s lead. Once again, it was a case of the Huskies not properly marking.
“On the second one, it was a scrum in front. We lost one of our defensemen, shot from the point and they got a rebound goal. It was right off the face-off,” Cavanaugh explained. “We lost two actually, we lost our center and our D off that face-off and they had an extra man at the net.”
However, UConn wasn’t without its own chances. The Huskies had five power plays on the night but far too often struggled to set anything up. They put just four shots on goal in those five opportunities and failed to get even a single shot during both their two minute advantages in the second period.
While UConn’s only goal came on the power play, scoring just once on five chances while only generating four shots isn’t a recipe to win hockey games, especially those with playoff implications on the line.
“They won the special teams game and that was the difference in tonight’s game,” Cavanaugh said.
Offense can’t find goals
When the sin bins were empty, UConn was the better team for the most part. In the first period, the Huskies out-shot UMass Lowell 10-1 in 5-on-5 play and generated some dangerous chances on net.
That was a theme all night long, though. UConn got good, not great, opportunities but only forced River Hawks goaltender Tyler Wall to make one save at a time. The Huskies took a lot of mid-range shots where Wall had clear vision of the puck the entire time and had no issue gloving or turning away. As the hockey adage goes, UConn got pucks to net but it failed to get bodies to net.
“We just have to get second opportunities,” Cavanaugh said. “I don’t think we had enough second opportunities against them tonight. That’s something we’ll have to work on for next week.”
The Huskies also struggled to set up in their offensive zone as UMass Lowell disrupted any offense rhythm and effectively cleared the zone. While UConn got plenty of chances on the night, out-shooting the hosts 32-26, it rarely sustained pressure or found grade-A chances.
GOAL! Andre Lee gets the #RiverHawks on the board first with a PPG! #UnitedInBlue #HockeyEast pic.twitter.com/uEjgKdUtkG— UMass Lowell Hockey (@RiverHawkHockey) March 7, 2020
UConn POWER PLAY GOAL!!! Huskies get one back at 7:54 on the power play. Howarth puts home a rebound and the #IceBus is back in it! pic.twitter.com/zdyIsbvgxk— UConn Men's Hockey (@UConnMHOC) March 7, 2020
GOAL! Sam Knoblauch with his 4th tally of the year for #RiverHawks to make it 2-0 good guys #UnitedInBlue #HockeyEast pic.twitter.com/dYxkMbyWgV— UMass Lowell Hockey (@RiverHawkHockey) March 7, 2020
UConn will return to the Hockey East playoffs after a one-year hiatus next weekend. The Huskies will likely open on Friday night either in Orono, Maine or back in Lowell. Again, if BU wins, UConn goes to Lowell. If BU ties or loses, the Huskies travel up north to Alfond Arena.