A pair of unanswered goals and a big penalty kill in the final minutes helped UConn men’s hockey secure its first road win, 2-1, over the UNH Wildcats. The Huskies improve to 3-4-1 on the season and in Hockey East play as well.
UNH went ahead in the first period off a power-play goal before UConn’s John Spetz responded in the second period and Roman Kinal found the game-winner in the third.
Huskies survive late penalty
UConn took a 2-1 lead less than 90 seconds into the third period. However, the goal seemed to wake UNH up as both teams battled back and forth down the ice trading chances. The Huskies gifted the Wildcats a golden opportunity to tie the game with 3:26 left to play.
Brian Rigali went to the penalty box for hooking. During the resulting power play, the Wildcats pulled their goaltender soon after, giving them a 6-on-4 advantage with around a minute left.
Though UConn has spent a lot of time on special teams in practice this season, head coach Mike Cavanaugh admitted the team hadn’t covered that specific situation much. As a result, he used a timeout at the next stoppage to prepare the players as best he could.
“Normally by now we’d have worked on that quite a bit,” Cavanaugh said of the 6-on-4. “But because our practices have been so disjointed or the games are every other night, it’s not something we’ve worked a ton on. But I was glad we’re able to get the timeout and talk about it because it is certainly a unique situation in a hockey game.”
During that final 3:26, UNH attempted seven shots but only three made it to goaltender Tomas Vomacka. UConn’s penalty killers — specifically Rigali and Hudson Schandor — put their bodies between the puck and net to block four shots.
“That’s the reason why they’re on our penalty kill,” Cavanaugh said. “Not only are they smart, quick players but they’re not afraid to get their body right in front from the shot lane and block shots. It was huge down the stretch.”
Vomacka and the Huskies held strong under the pressure and eventually drained the final seconds to secure the 2-1 win.
Defensemen carry the scoring load
In UConn’s first six games, its defensemen accounted for just one of the team’s 12 goals. But in the Huskies’ last two matchups, they’re responsible for three of four.
First, Spetz fired a shot that took a bizarre deflection and somehow found its way into the back of the net to tie the game at 1-1.
“John Spetz made a nice move to get his puck down on the net and we had traffic down there and got a bounce. That happens,” Cavanaugh said.
On Kinal’s goal, Jonny Evans’ started the sequence with a shot that was blocked by UNH goaltender Mike Robinson. The puck bounced back to Evans, who found Kinal on the side of the net. With Robinson turned around in search of the puck, Kinal flicked it in to give UConn a 2-1 lead 1:16 into the third.
“On Roman’s, he just jumped into the play and followed up,” Cavanaugh added. “It was really smart play on his behalf and again, I thought there was a lot of traffic in front of the net.”
Spetz is now tied for second on the team with a pair of goals. Kinal netted his first score since Nov. 8, 2019 against Northeastern — his true freshman season. The sophomore missed all of last season with blood clots in his lungs.
With nearly 90 shots on the night and only three goals allowed combined, both goaltenders stole the show on Friday night.
Robinson had a lot more work than his UConn counterpart as the Huskies out-shot UNH 52-37. The senior kept the Wildcats in the game, especially with saves on four different breakaway chances from the Huskies.
“I thought our goalie was outstanding. Otherwise, it could have been a 5-, 6-, 7-1 game,” UNH coach Mike Souza said. “I thought that was one of Michael’s best games he’s played since he’s been here — and he’s had some good ones. That could have got ugly on us in a hurry if it wasn’t for him.”
On the other end, Vomacka was his typical solid self for UConn. Though he didn’t need to make too many difficult stops, he corralled rebounds and made a few impressive glove-saves with traffic in front of him. The only goal he allowed came off a one-timer from the backside on a power play.
“He’s been locked in playing pretty well,” Cavanaugh said of Vomacka. “We’re gonna need him to do that all season long if we want to be one of the top echelon teams in the league.”
Fourth line does its job
With Vladislav Firstov (World Juniors), Kale Howarth (upper-body injury), and Cassidy Bowes (coach’s decision) all inactive, UConn’s entire fourth line consisted of players who have not recorded a single point in their collegiate careers. Though Eric Linell played in his fifth consecutive game, junior John Wojciechowski and freshman Gavin Puskar both made their season debuts.
All three players failed to record a point but they still held their own. Puskar saw a lot of action, in particular, playing on both the penalty kill and power play in his first game for the Huskies.
It’s not a line that UConn will want to use all season but each player looked like they belonged on the ice — something that can’t always be said about reserves.
“I thought they gave us valuable minutes. I thought they played really well,” Cavanaugh said. “They normally have not played but I always tell the guys at the beginning of the year that if you’re in this locker room at some point you’re going to be counted upon to help this team win hockey games and tonight was one of those nights. We’ve had a couple situations with injuries and whatnot and they stepped in and did a very admirable job.”
Check out Eriksson's power play goal to give the 'Cats a 1-0 lead in the first!!— UNH Men's Hockey (@UNHMHOCKEY) January 1, 2021
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UConn will return home in search of the series sweep against UNH on Saturday. Puck drop is set for 4 p.m. with SportsLive streaming all the action.