UConn men’s hockey defeated the No. 15 UMass Lowell River Hawks 2-1 at the XL Center to snap a three-game losing streak that featured three different but equally painful losses.
As head coach Mike Cavanaugh spoke after the game, he looked visibly drained and spoke with a hoarse voice. The Huskies needed this victory, and they needed it badly.
“I thought that was a gutsy win for our team,” Cavanaugh said.
UConn scored twice in the second period before UMass Lowell answered to back to get within one entering the final intermission. The Huskies then clung to a 2-1 lead over the final 20 minutes to earn three important points in the Hockey East standings.
Huskies make the plays to win
Entering Sunday’s game, UConn had beat up on the weaker opponents on its schedule but had dropped close games to good teams. The night before, the Huskies played an even game with the River Hawks and entered the third period tied at 0-0 before giving up two goals and an empty-netter en route to a 3-0 defeat.
This season, UConn had just one win against a team with a winning record. It didn’t help that UMass Lowell — a physical, disciplined team that isn’t easy to play against — entered the game on a nine-game unbeaten streak and had started 5-0-0 in Hockey East play.
After so many narrow heartbreakers, the Huskies finally returned the favor.
“We made a lot of plays where last night I didn’t think we made plays to win the game,” Cavanaugh said. “Tonight, we did and there was a whole myriad of them.”
It started on the defensive end. UConn blocked 17 shots, which tied a season high and seemed to always get a stick on the puck around the net. Even in moments when the River Hawks controlled possession, the Huskies cleared the zone and forced the visitors to reset.
Ryan Tverberg, UConn’s leading scorer, set the tone by laying out and putting his body between the puck and goal to stop shots throughout the game.
“It’s that old adage: If your best players are committed to doing all the little things to help you win — jeez, it makes it a lot easier to coach,” Cavanaugh said.
Down the other end, UConn created its two goals in different ways. On the first, Jachym Kondelik carried the puck into the zone and made a tough pass to Kevin O’Neil on the wing. He gave it to a wide-open Wheeler in front of net, who tapped it past UMass Lowell goalie Owen Savory to put the Huskies up 1-0 just 24 seconds into the second period.
Eight minutes later, Jake Flynn’s shot hit the post but then bounced off Savory’s back into the net. While the junior blueliner got credited for the score, Kondelik posted up in front of Savory and took away his eyes, which prevented the net-minder from making the initial save. The Huskies got a good bounce but Cavanaugh didn’t want to hear anything about luck.
“You get puck luck when you go to the front of the net and the goalie’s screened and he doesn’t know where the puck is. Yeah, you need that,” Cavanaugh said. “I think you create your own puck luck, too, and I think on that goal, there was a lot of that.”
While UMass Lowell pulled one back at the end of the period, UConn locked down defensively in the third period. The River Hawks owned an 11-3 advantage on shots on goal in the final 20 minutes but the Huskies made it difficult for the visitors to create dangerous chances on net and slowly let the clock bleed out.
UMass Lowell didn’t pull its goaltender until 1:12 to play, and UConn survived against the extra skater to take the victory.
Evans, Firstov sit
The Huskies’ win came without two of their most talented forwards. Jonny Evans and Vladislav Firstov were both scratched from the lineup after playing on Sunday.
“They both had nagging injuries,” Cavanaugh said. “I just thought going into this game, I know how hard Lowell plays. You can’t go in if you’re not 100 percent and I think it showed a little bit last night.
“I’m hoping next week they’ll be good.”
After Thanksgiving, UConn will play one game next weekend at home against Colgate on Saturday.