It was a crazy 20 minutes, but UConn men’s hockey picked up a much-needed win against Merrimack at the XL Center Tuesday night.
After two scoreless periods, Merrimack got on the board 1:07 into the third. Three minutes later, UConn was up 3-1 after Jachym Kondelik, Roman Kinal, and Jonny Evans scored the game-tying, go-ahead, and insurance goals, respectively. That stretch powered the Huskies to victory over the No. 19 team in the country.
The Huskies snapped the Warriors’ five-game winning streak and improve to 11-10-0 overall, 8-6-0 in Hockey East play.
“I just thought that was a real gutsy win for our team tonight,” head coach Mike Cavanaugh said. “It just seems like every week we’re playing the team of the week. Last week, it was New Hampshire. This week, it’s Merrimack and they’ve been on a roll.”
Furious start to third period
The first 40 minutes featured little in the way of excitement. The two teams mostly traded shots that were either into traffic, into the goalie’s breadbasket, or off-target. Through two periods, UConn held a 21-12 advantage in shots but neither team came all that close to scoring.
That quickly changed once the third period began. Just over a minute in, Merrimack’s Ivan Zivlak launched a shot wide of goal that bounced off the backboards and found a wide-open Liam Walsh on the back post. He easily back-handed a shot into the net to give the Warriors a 1-0 lead.
It took all of 1:22 for the Huskies to respond, though. Merrimack committed a tripping penalty moments after it scored which gave UConn its second power play of the night.
With the advantage, Kevin O’Neil received the puck out of a scrum in the corner, skated towards net, and sent it across to Vladislav Firstov, who fired it at goal. The shot was blocked but the puck floated towards a waiting Jachym Kondelik. The senior battled it out of the air and scored.
“[O’Neil] made a great play there and we got the goalie moving and Vlad ripped it,” Mike Cavanaugh said. “Then [Kondelik] was there and knocked in the rebound.”
Less than a minute later, UConn pulled ahead. A puck slipped loose from the backboards and found Chase Bradley, who fired a point-blank attempt. Though his effort was denied, Roman Kinal crashed in and buried the rebound to give the Huskies a 2-1 advantage.
Another minute later, Jake Veilleux dumped the puck into the offensive zone. Once again, the boards helped out the home side. The puck caromed off the wall, deflected off the post, and fell straight into the path of Jonny Evans. The senior didn’t miss.
Just over 187 seconds after Merrimack went up 1-0, UConn had taken a 3-1 lead.
“We really fed off that energy (of the three quick goals) as a group,” Cavanaugh said. “It’s a Tuesday night and there’s a basketball game tonight, there’s not a big crowd here. We had to create our own energy and I think we certainly did in the third period.”
Lockdown final 1:45
UConn needed to battle to the last second to earn the win.
Despite taking a two-goal lead, Merrimack refused to back down and continued to attack. The visitors got the break they needed when the officials sent Nick Capone to the penalty box on a questionable holding penalty and the Warriors converted on the power play with just under eight minutes left to get back within one.
As the game wound down, Merrimack again got a beneficial whistle. With 1:45 left, Chase Bradley was called for cross-checking, giving the Warriors an advantage for the remainder of the game. Scott Borek took his lone timeout to pull the goalie, which meant UConn needed to survive a 6-on-4 situation to come away with the victory.
With the game on the line, the coach leaned on four senior forwards.
“Mark (Gatcomb) and Jachym did a great job and then Jonny and Carter (Turnbull) came out and we just kind of rolled those four forwards for the 1:45,” Cavanaugh said.
The penalty kill delivered. Darion Hanson absorbed three shots and made a stellar save with six seconds left while the Huskies’ skaters played desperate hockey and threw everything they could in front of the puck.
At long last, the final buzzer sounded and UConn poured off the bench to celebrate the victory.
“Being able to kill off that 6-on-4 with a 1:45 seconds left at the end of the game was huge,” Cavanaugh said. “Hanny (Hanson) had to make one ridiculous save and the rest of it, the guys blocked shots and did a good job.”
UConn will play again on Saturday in the opening round of the Connecticut Ice Festival. The Huskies will take on Yale at 3:30 p.m. at Webster Bank Arena in Bridgeport. SNY will broadcast all four games from the tournament.
Ohhhhh Jonny! Someone is starting to heat up pic.twitter.com/H4JYMxeMcW— UConn Men's Hockey (@UConnMHOC) January 26, 2022