Men's Hockey: UConn struggles in battle of the Huskies

Max Letunov attacks the net  during UConn's 5-2 loss to Northeastern at the XL Center on Friday Feb. 19, 2016. (Tyler Benton/The Daily Campus)

UConn men’s hockey got on the board first Friday night, but it was the visiting Huskies from Northeastern (13-13-5, 7-8-4 Hockey East) who took control to pick up a 5-2 win.

UConn head coach Mike Cavanaugh knew his team needed to make a lot of quick adjustments to compete in Saturday’s rematch in Boston.

“They’re a really good team and they’re playing at the top of their game, but we don’t have room for turnovers,” Cavanaugh said. “That was a key to our game, not to turn the puck over in the neutral zone, and I thought we turned it over too many times in the neutral zone.”

UConn freshman Tage Thompson scored his 11th power play goal of the season three minutes into the game when a Northeastern defender deflected his shot from the left circle. Max Letunov recorded the assist and set the UConn record in rookie points in the process. Things unraveled for the home team from there.

At the 4:59 mark in the first period, Northeastern forward Nolan Stevens netted a wrist shot from the right circle, assisted by his older brother and line mate John Stevens.

Less than a minute later the visiting Huskies took the lead on a rebound in front of the net. UConn’s most costly turnover came 14 minutes into the period when Evan Richardson’s pass through the middle was picked off by Northeastern’s Mike McMurtry, who finished off a breakaway to increase his team’s lead.

A hooking penalty on defenseman Derek Pratt 25 seconds later kept UConn on the defensive. Northeastern forward and captain Kevin Roy put home a rebound in front of the net to claim a 4-1 lead and run goaltender Rob Nichols from the game in favor of Tanner Creel. 

Creel was effective off the bench for the Huskies and recorded 28 saves the rest of the way.

“I thought he did great. That’s a tough thing to do, to come in with six minutes in the first period without really any warm-ups,” Cavanaugh said.

The sophomore goaltender shined in the second period during a brutal stretch in which UConn could not clear the puck at even strength and Northeastern fired off a flurry of shots.

“That one shift was two and a half minutes or three minutes, it was crazy. We couldn’t get the puck out of our zone,” Cavanaugh said. “It’s something we’ll have to address, but do I think the kids in that locker room are capable of playing a lot better? Yes, I do.”

If there was ever a chance for UConn to swing the momentum and get back in the game it was late in the second period. After UConn killed off a two-minute holding penalty, Northeastern was called for too many men on the ice. Freshman defenseman Joseph Masonius took advantage, scoring on a slap shot from the point to make it a 4-2 game.

“We took a stupid penalty with too many men on the ice and we gave them life and that’s a team you don’t want to give life to because they’ve got some skilled players in Thompson, Letunov, and a few others,” Northeastern head coach Jim Madigan said.

Madigan was happy with the way his team recovered and clamped down defensively in the third period. They limited UConn to only five shots in the period and finished the game with a 49-18 edge in shots on net.

“I liked how we responded in the third period. I thought we closed the game out really well,” Madigan said. “I thought our kids played smart. We stayed above the puck and went through the middle of the ice, we got pucks out of our own zone, and just played a real smart third period.”

The dagger came at 5:53 when Roy scored his second goal of the game, an easy tap-in assisted by Sam Kurker. Northeastern cruised to a 5-2 final and headed back to Boston to prepare for the 7 p.m. rematch Saturday.

It was much of the same on Saturday night in Beantown. Northeastern picked up their fifth straight win and UConn remained winless in their last eight conference games. After a scoreless first period, Northeastern scored two quick power play goals in the second.

UConn hung tough however and picked up a power-play goal of their own. Captain Patrick Kirtland put home a rebound from the left circle following a slap shot from Thompson.

Northeastern never let UConn tie things up and extended the lead to 3-1 when Kurker beat Nichols on a wrist shot from the right circle. An empty-netter with a minute to go sealed the deal for a Northeastern sweep.

The Huskies were left to prepare for a home-and-home series next weekend against New Hampshire. They will host the Wildcats on Friday and finish the regular season at the Whittemore Center in Durham, New Hampshire, on Saturday. 


Aaron Esposito is a staff writer for The Daily Campus, covering men's hockey. He can be reached via email at aaron.esposito@uconn.edu.