If the first shift of the game was anything to go by, every member of an XL Center crowd of 3,610 knew the Huskies were in for a wild ride on Tuesday night.
Sacred Heart scored goals just 18 and 29 seconds into the game to set the tone for a fast-paced, action-packed Pioneer victory in Hartford. UConn and Sacred Heart combined for 11 goals on Tuesday, though the Huskies fell by a score of 7-4.
“It was a really bizarre first shift,” said UConn head coach Mike Cavanaugh. “Probably the craziest first shift I’ve ever seen in my life.”
Sacred Heart won the opening faceoff, but UConn forced an immediate turnover. Freshman Tage Thompson took the puck down the ice and snapped off a shot, nearly giving UConn a lead inside of 10 seconds. The puck then took a favorable Sacred Heart bounce, giving the Pioneers a two-on-one against UConn goaltender Tanner Creel.
Justin Danforth slid it to Evan Jasper, who fired it past Creel to give Sacred Heart an early lead. The Pioneers doubled their advantage on the very next shift. A defensive breakdown by the Huskies lead to an open shot from Zach Luczyk, and though Creel was able to stop the initial shot, Luczyk pounced on his own rebound to make it 2-0 just 29 seconds into the game.
“That was a wild 40 seconds,” said Sacred Heart coach C.J. Marottolo. “They had a semi-breakaway, and then we get a lucky bounce and get a two-on-one.”
Despite the poor start, UConn was on the board just four minutes later. Max Letunov took a feed from Jesse Schwartz in the corner, giving him a great opportunity against Sacred Heart goaltender Brett Magnus. The freshman calmly pulled the puck onto his left side and fired one over Magnus’ right pad.
Sacred Heart would restore their two-goal advantage four minutes later. Though UConn was on the power play, Justin Danforth took a turnover off the power play faceoff and beat Creel one-on-one for a shorthanded goal.
Still on the power play, UConn responded with a goal to make the score 3-2. Thompson set up Letunov with a wide-open look at the left post, and once again the forward made no mistake. Letunov finished with two goals on the night, taking him up to 13 on the season.
Cavanaugh made it clear that he was disappointed with the effort of many of his players on Tuesday, but also noted that Letunov was not one of them.
“He was one of a few guys who I thought played hard for 60 minutes,” said Cavanaugh. “But one of a few doesn’t get it done. We need an entire team collectively.”
Consistency was a huge problem for the Huskies on Tuesday. Coming off of a 3-3 tie against Boston College last weekend, Cavanaugh stressed the importance of keeping up the through the first period of the game.
“Saturday night, we played our very best game of the year, and we played 65 minutes. The goal tonight was ‘let’s turn 65 [minutes] into 85 [minutes]’,” said Cavanaugh. “And we didn’t turn 65 into 66.”
The Huskies managed to tie the game up 12 minutes into the second period. Spencer Naas deflected a Johnny Austin shot up and over Magnus’s shoulder, capping a dominant stretch of play for UConn.
“That was probably our best eight-to-ten minutes of the game,” said Cavanaugh. “But then they scored and the momentum went right back to them.”
Sacred Heart recaptured the lead two minutes later, courtesy of Danforth’s second goal of the game. Creel lost sight of the puck in a crowd in front of net, and the junior from Ontario cleaned up the chance.
The Pioneers struck again a minute later, though in a somewhat controversial fashion. Jeff Carroll ripped a shot from deep, which bounced off two posts and didn’t initially appear to go in. However, the referees called it a goal on the ice, and after review, confirmed their decision, giving Sacred Heart a 5-3 lead.
Sacred Heart opened play in the third period with their sixth goal of the game. With captain Patrick Kirtland in the box for hooking, Mitch Nylen got on the end of a redirected pass in front of the net. Before Creel was able to recover, Nylen had already put the chance away. Danforth was credited with an assist of the play, giving him four points (2g, 2a) for the game.
That goal essentially sealed the win for the Pioneers. UConn got one more goal on a gorgeous redirect from Shawn Pauly, but Sacred Heart capped it off with an empty-netter at 18:34 of the third period.
Although UConn was hampered by injuries, Cavanaugh made no excuses for his team’s poor play. The effort was just not there tonight, highlighting the consistency problems that Cavanaugh continues to stress.
“We’ve had nights where we’ve been pretty good defensively, and tonight wasn’t one of those nights,” said Cavanaugh. “If there’s a UConn guy and a Sacred Heart guy going for the loose puck, and the SHU guy wants it more, they’re going to win. If I had to simplify everything, I think that was really the essence of tonight’s game. They wanted the puck more. And that’s my job.”
The Huskies (8-15-3) now have a week off to set things straight before returning to the XL Center next Tuesday night, when they take on Brown in another non-conference matchup.
Expect UConn to come out with more fire and play hard for a full 60 minutes.
“We might not always have the skill and the talent to match other teams, but we certainly should have the inner drive to win those puck battles,” said Cavanaugh, “and it’s on me to get those guys to do that.”
Pete Harasyko is a staff writer for The Daily Campus. He can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.