Playing in front of the third-largest crowd in UConn men’s hockey history, the Huskies skated to their most electrifying win in recent memory, overcoming a 4-2 deficit with less than 10 minutes left. After forcing overtime, junior Maxim Letunov sent No. 20 BU home packing, capping off the comeback and notching a 5-4 win, UConn’s program-tying seventh-straight victory.
Here’s how it happened:
Another slow start
Last time BU came to the XL Center, a rough first period doomed the Huskies. This time around, it was another slow start for UConn.
“We started slow,” head coach Mike Cavanaugh said. “I didn’t think we had a great practice yesterday, and I think that carried over into our first period.”
Back on Oct. 21, the Terriers put up a three-spot in the first period, jumping out to an ultimately insurmountable 3-0 lead. They went on to win 6-3, even though the Huskies mostly controlled the following two periods.
On Friday, it was the offense, not the defense, that struggled out of the gate. UConn recorded only three shots on-goal in the period compared to Boston’s 10, and had difficulty generating quality scoring opportunities throughout the period.
Although the Huskies couldn’t capitalize on their power play chance in the first, the Terriers did. BU’s Chad Krys, a high school classmate of UConn’s Adam Karashik, faked a shot before flicking a wrist shot past Tanner Creel to take a 1-0 lead.
In October, the first-period woes were enough to bury the Huskies. On Friday, it was a different story.
Naas shines on Senior Night
“I’m going to miss them, but I don’t think our story’s over yet.”
That’s what senior Spencer Naas had to say after the win, and he’s not alone.
Friday marked the annual Senior Night, and this year’s graduating class of nine seniors were honored prior to the game. Captain Derek Pratt, alternate captain Naas, Johnny Austin, Tanner Creel, David Drake, Kasperi Ojantakanen, Corey Ronan, Jesse Schwartz, and Jeff Wight were all recognized, and their presence was certainly felt on Friday night.
“The one legacy that all nine of them will be able to leave,” Cavanaugh said, “is that they transformed this program from a program that hoped to compete in Hockey East, to a program that expects to win.”
It was Naas in particular who left his mark on Friday’s game, scoring a pair of crucial goals to key the UConn comeback. Naas first got the Huskies on the board in the second, beating the BU defense to a loose puck in front of the net off a pass from Alexander Payusov. Naas had only the goalie to beat and did just that to tie the game at 1-1.
In the third, it was Naas again, this time with the huge goal to cut into BU’s 3-1 lead. On the Huskies’ third power play of the night, Benjamin Freeman worked the puck inside to Max Kalter, who delivered a perfect one-timer feed to Naas, who flicked it home.
Naas has now recorded a point in each of the Huskies’ seven-straight wins. After the game, he talked about his fellow seniors:
“Just a really good group of guys. Everyone has worked so hard through the ups and downs, I remember losing 9-0, 10-1 our freshman year. Everyone wanted to see this thing through, and I’m so proud of this group. I’m going to miss them, but I don’t think our story’s over yet.”
Despite allowing four goals, Creel turned in another strong performance in net, making a handful of spectacular glove saves throughout the game. He finished with 27 saves, but a couple in particular got the crowd on its feet and swung the momentum in UConn’s favor.
Ojantakanen also came up big, deflecting a shot from Max Letunov to trim the lead to one once again, making it 4-3 and getting the crowd back in the game.
BU blows a 3-1 (and 4-2) lead
If the Huskies want to be a legitimate contender in the Hockey East playoffs, they need to be able to take some punches and answer. On Friday, they did just that.
After Naas’ goal made it 3-2 BU, the Terriers responded less than a minute later with a goal of their own. It was a crushing blow and seemed to suck the energy out of a fantastic crowd. With less than ten minutes left, time was quickly running out.
The Ojantakanen goal changed that in a hurry. It immediately revived the crowd in a big way, and the entire building seemed to sense a momentum shift in favor of the Huskies.
At the 14:23 mark in the third, Letunov, who was in the middle of everything on Friday night, slotted the puck to Payusov who did the rest, tying the game at 4-4. The XL Center roof seemed ready to fall due to the deafening cheer, and the team certainly fed off the crowd’s energy.
“I can’t say enough about the crowd my full four years here,” Naas said. “They gave us that push at the end, they certainly contributed to that win tonight.”
By the time regulation hit triple zeroes, UConn simply looked the better team. In overtime, Letnov fittingly delivered the final blow, flicking a backhander top shelf for the win.
“Since I’ve been here with this senior class, they’ve never once quit, even down 10-0, they still competed,” Cavanaugh said. “Never once have I been able to say this team packed it in. That’s a trademark of our program.”