Tuesday’s game was the 11th meeting between the rival Huskies of UConn and Northeastern. In the previous 10 games, UConn had exactly zero wins and 10 losses. On Tuesday, the Huskies of Connecticut finally came out on top, defeating Northeastern 4-1. Here’s how they did it.
First period turnaround
Early in the season, slow starts routinely doomed the Huskies. No team in Hockey East has allowed more first period goals than UConn, an unsightly 20 goals in 17 games, whereas the Huskies have only scored 10.
Lately, however, first periods have been vital for the Huskies’ success. In their last game on Saturday, UConn netted two goals in the first period while allowing one, before shutting out RIT the rest of the way. Three goals were once again scored in the first on Tuesday, but this time all three went for UConn.
“We talked about getting out and having a great start to the game. We didn’t want to chase,” Head Coach Mike Cavanaugh said. “That first period was probably the best period of hockey we’ve played all year.”
First, it was Maxim Letunov making quick work of a power play opportunity. Moments later, Johnny Austin sniped a shot from the far edge of the left circle. And with less than two minutes remaining in the period, Jesse Schwartz scored his third goal in as many games on a beautiful assist from Corey Ronan.
After 20 minutes the Huskies, had built a three-goal lead and knocked out the starting goalie of the 12th-best team in the country, and they never looked back.
UConn averages 32 shots per game, second in Hockey East only to Boston University. Yet their 2.47 goals per game is second-to-last in the conference. The problem for UConn is not so much getting shots on goal, but getting quality looks.
On Tuesday, the Huskies recorded eight shots on goal in the first period, slightly below their season average. But they cashed in on three of them and it was mostly due to individual effort. Letunov created the first goal himself on a breakaway. Austin found some space and blasted the puck top shelf. Ronan battled behind the net before delivering a great pass to Austin.
At times, this team has been too passive, playing hot potato with the puck. But on Tuesday, individual effort and aggression won the war.
Schwartz stays hot, Payusov returns
Jesse Schwartz, a senior from Toronto, scored for the third-straight game and added an assist. Schwartz had a three-goal weekend against Ohio State on Nov. 10-11. Prior to that outburst, he hadn’t scored since January—of 2016. Schwartz then took a two-game break from the scoring column and has now lit the lamp in each of UConn’s three consecutive victories.
The Huskies are now 3-1-1 in games when Schwartz scores.
Tuesday also marked the triumphant return of sophomore Alexander Payusov, who has been out since Oct. 28 with a knee injury. Payusov was UConn’s leading scorer before going down, including six goals in a five-game stretch.
At the 5:11 mark in the third, Austin rifled one in from the blue line. If Payusov was rusty, he certainly didn’t show it, being perfectly positioned to tip the puck in the air past the Northeastern keeper. It reestablished the three-goal lead for the Huskies and put the game away at 4-1.
“It feels real good to be back,” Payusov said. “It feels good (to score), but I didn’t think I played the best game tonight. I just have to keep working.”
Defense continues to dominate
One could feel the uneasiness and anxiety in the XL Center at the start of the third period. Northeastern had mostly controlled the second, cutting the deficit to two on a goal from Dylan Sikura which split the legs of UConn goalkeeper Adam Huska. UConn defenseman Adam Karashik was then called for a penalty as the second period expired, granting Northeastern a power play to open the third. The once seemingly insurmountable lead suddenly seemed very vulnerable.
But for the second game in a row, the Huskies absolutely shut down their opponent in the final frame. They killed that penalty without much danger and then put home the dagger on Payusov’s goal.
Huska was his typical superb self, recording 26 saves, including 10 in the final period. Derek Pratt had five blocks. The defense was swarming, repeatedly sacrificing their bodies for blocks and intercepting passes. They reduced one of the nation’s most potent offenses to an unorganized mess.
“We did a great job of limiting second chances in front of Adam,” Cavanaugh said. “It starts with goaltending, but at times early in the year we had too many guys ‘playing goalie.’ We already have a goalie.”
The Huskies have now allowed one goal or fewer in four straight games, and against some very dangerous offenses at that. The three-game winning streak is the longest of the season for the Huskies and certainly a statement victory over a ranked opponent. UConn is now 1-10-0 all-time against Northeastern and will go for win number two in Boston on Feb. 9.