For the second night in a row, UConn and Vermont played a nail biter in Hockey East playoff action at the XL Center. Unfortunately for UConn, they came out on the losing end and saw their season come to a close in front of more than 4,500 fans.
Unlike Friday night’s game, there was a lot of scoring in a 4-3 Vermont (15-20-3) victory. The Huskies (11-21-4) got things going eight minutes into the game when senior Joey Ferriss found freshman Karl El-Mir with a pass from behind the net. El-Mir was able to beat Vermont goaltender Mike Santaguida for his second goal of the season. However, Vermont responded after back-to-back penalties put UConn on the defensive. After failing to score in a 5-on-3 situation, Vermont forward Mario Puskarich capitalized on the power play with a slap shot over the glove of UConn goaltender Rob Nichols, who finished the night with 28 saves.
The Catamounts took the lead three minutes later when a wrist shot deflected off UConn defenseman Johnny Austin’s stick and past Nichols. The XL Center crowd took a while to get going, but came alive in a big way when Tage Thompson was called for a questionable interference call, with two minutes remaining in the period. Whether it was a legal hit or not, it gave UConn energy and brought a playoff atmosphere to the building.
“If that’s what he called that’s what he called,” head coach Mike Cavanaugh said. “We did kill the penalty. I think he gave us a lot of energy actually.”
That energy carried into the second period when El-Mir struck again. The freshman forward was able to slip the puck past his defender from the right side, blow by him, and finish with a wrist shot over the goalie’s left shoulder.
“I think I had a step on him and took advantage of it. I put the puck behind him, took it again and put it in,” El-Mir said.
El-Mir is part of a line with Ferriss and fellow freshman Max Kalter that has performed well in the past few weeks.
“Both Max Kalter and Karl El-Mir don’t get a lot of hype,” Cavanaugh said. “I think they’re going to be integral, key players down the road for us.”
Two UVM penalties, six minutes into the second period, gave UConn a chance to take a 3-2 lead on a Thompson power play goal. Thompson took a feed from Max Letunov and fired a slap shot past Santaguida from the left circle. UConn would take that 3-2 lead into the third period fighting to keep their season alive and force a game-three Sunday night.
UVM showed poise and battled back to tie the game midway through the period. Senior captain Yvan Pattyn rifled a slap shot over the left shoulder of Nichols to tie it at 3-3.
“They’re battle tested. They’ve got some older guys and some strong veterans and they made some good plays,” Cavanaugh said. “We’re building that. The majority of our team is freshmen and sophomores who haven’t played in a playoff series like that.”
Both teams traded chances for the rest of the period, but Vermont had one extra bounce go their way. At 18:41 Vermont freshman Brian Bowen had a shot in front of the net deflected by Letunov, but it came right back to him for an easy goal.
“Unbelievable shot by our captain to get the tying goal and then it was a little bit of a fluky bounce there on the fourth goal,” Vermont head coach Kevin Sneddon said.
With an extra skater on the ice, UConn couldn’t find the back of the net and their season came to an end. That doesn’t mean Cavanaugh is disappointed with his team’s effort and performance in the two playoff games.
“Both games could have gone either way. The difference was I think Vermont was a battle tested playoff team, and we’re building to be a battle tested playoff team; we’re just not there yet,” Cavanaugh said. “That will come and my hat’s off to them because they found a way to get the win in the third period.”
Aaron Esposito is a staff writer for The Daily Campus, covering men’s hockey. He can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.