After weeks of anticipation, the UConn men’s hockey team finally opened its season with a weekend series against the University of Alabama in Huntsville. The two teams split the games, with the Huskies taking Friday’s game 5-2 and the Chargers prevailing on Saturday night.
Freshman Max Letunov netted a hat trick in a spectacular college debut, scoring the final three goals of the game to help UConn pull away on Friday night. Junior Rob Nichols was solid in net, making 13 saves to earn the win.
The Huskies got off to a quick start, scoring just 26 seconds into the game. Sophomore defenseman David Drake found senior captain Patrick Kirtland in the left circle, who quickly buried his shot past Huntsville goalkeeper Carmine Guerriero.
However, that was all the Huskies would get in the first period. The Chargers responded seven minutes later with an unassisted goal from Brennan Saulnier, and took the lead with two minutes left in the period off a redirect from Max McHugh.
“I thought we got off to a great start on the first shift, but after that I didn’t think we played out best,” said head coach Mike Cavanaugh. “I thought they had the better chances in the first.”
Freshman defenseman Joe Masonius tied the game two minutes into the second period. Freshman Tage Thompson ripped a shot that rebounded to Masonius, who found the back of the net for his first collegiate goal. After an up-and-down first period, Masonius provided the Huskies the momentum they needed to swing the game in their favor.
“That Masonius goal to tie it in the second really lifted us,” Cavanaugh said.
After that point, the highly-touted freshman from Russia took over. Letunov scored his first collegiate goal from a Spencer Naas assist with five minutes to play in the second, a goal that eventually proved to be the winner.
Letunov struck twice in the third, first on a rebound from Naas’ effort. Trying to find two goals late, Huntsville pulled Guerriero. He completed his hat trick with an empty-netter just seven seconds from the buzzer.
“The third period may have been one of the very best periods we have played since I’ve been here,” said Cavanaugh. “We did a really great job of playing just good, solid hockey.”
Letunov’s hat trick is the program’s first since January 9, 2014, when Billy Latta scored three in a win over Robert Morris.
The second game of the series did not go as well for the Huskies. UConn scored two goals in the first period. Freshman Corey Ronan opened the scoring with a penalty shot, but the Chargers responded just minutes later. The teams traded goals again in the first, going into the break tied 2-2.
Ultimately, it was poor special teams play that cost the Huskies the game. The team was whistled for seven penalties, allowing a power play goal late in the second. Huntsville scored twice in the third, including a shorthanded goal, to put the game out of reach. The Huskies finished the night 0-for-5 on the power play, despite finishing with a 31-29 edge in shots. Sophomore Steve Thulin made 24 saves in the loss.
UConn returns to action on Friday, October 16 for their home opener at the XL Center. The Huskies will face Division I newcomers Arizona State. Puck drop is scheduled for 7:05 p.m.
Peter Harasyko is a staff writer for The Daily Campus, covering UConn men's hockey. He can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.