The UConn men’s hockey team was back in action in Hartford this weekend with a pair of games against Hockey East rival University of Maine. Karl El-Mir led the Huskies to victory in the home opener Friday night with a two-goal performance, while Alexander Payusov’s two goals Saturday afternoon kept UConn even with Maine.
Maine (2-3-1, 0-1-1 Hockey East) had one lead all weekend and it came at the 1:18 mark in the first period Friday night. Tim Doherty redirected a slap-shot past Adam Huska to claim the early lead.
Maine’s lead was short-lived as Payusov and the Huskies (3-2-1, 1-0-1 Hockey East) knotted things up at the 4:44 mark. Corson Green fired a shot off a pass from Jachym Kondelik that Payusov redirected in front of the net for the goal.
UConn took the lead with two minutes left before the first intermission. El-Mir received a Kondelik pass deep in the offensive zone, moved the puck to his backhand before taking it top shelf with his forehand, giving the Huskies a 2-1 lead.
Kondelik, who now leads the team with eight assists, has been finding open teammates consistently and they’ve appreciated it.
“We [El-Mir, Kondelik, Payusov] talk to each other and find those holes and [Kondelik] finds us,” El-Mir said.
No goals were scored in the second period, but not from a lack of opportunities as the two squads combined went 0-6 on the power play for the period. Huska (8) and Maine’s Jeremy Swayman (16), a Boston Bruins draft pick, turned away all 24 shots they faced.
Head coach Mike Cavanaugh described their play in the neutral zone as “cute.”
“I thought we got away from what we were doing pretty well,” Cavanaugh said. “I was trying to apply pressure, get pucks down, behind defensemen like they tried to do to us.”
Cavanaugh’s guys must have paid attention to coach, as El-Mir stretched UConn’s lead to 3-1 not even four minutes into the third period. Wyatt Newpower cleared the puck for the Huskies and, thanks to a Black Bear miscue, El-Mir was able to skate away on a breakaway before putting it far-side from the right circle for the goal.
Maine wasn’t done yet as Emil Westerlund took a UConn turnover in the Huskies’ defensive zone to slot and fired for his first score of the season.
With both teams down a skater, Carter Turnbull took a pass from captain Miles Gendron in a 2-on-1 opportunity and beat Swayman to his glove side for his second goal of the season. Friday was Gendron’s first action of the season after returning from injury.
“It’s always tough to watch,” Gendron said on his return to the ice. “Working some kinks out, forgot how to skate there for a little but I think I got better as the game went on.”
“I’ve been saying it all along, a lot of people are making a lot about our freshman class and they’re certainly talented and we’re happy with them but it was nice to get No. 10 back tonight,” Cavanaugh said. “We missed him. We certainly missed him in the first four games. His leadership is outstanding.”
Following what seemed to be a scoring theme for this game, Ben Freeman stuck his stick out to send a Newpower shot into the net at 15:32, extending UConn’s lead to 5-2 and securing the win.
El-Mir’s two goals, Newpower’s career-high three assists and Kondelik’s two assists landed them as the three stars of the game.
“We’re certainly pleased to get a win in out home opener,” Cavanaugh said after Friday’s contest. “I gotta give props to the crowd. I thought the crowd was fantastic. We’re very happy with the win.”
The scoring in Saturday’s game got off to a sluggish start for both sides largely due to stellar special teams’ performances. UConn went 0-2 on the power play themselves but was able to kill off all three Maine power plays, including three huge clears while Maine had a two-skater advantage.
UConn’s special teams remained in the spot-light in the second period as the Huskies took advantage of the power play twice. Philip Nyberg took a rough hit from behind from Maine’s Ryan Smith at the 4:16 mark, giving the Huskies a five-minute power play for the major penalty and game-misconduct. Evan Wisocky fired a shot but Payusov was there to clean things up, giving UConn a 1-0 lead at 7:51.
Nyberg stayed down a while after the hit and needed a trainer’s assistance to exit the ice. He did not return and his status for now is not known.
Wisocky and Payusov teamed up again for the second UConn goal of the period. With 20 seconds before the second intermission, Wisocky fed Payusov perfectly for his one-timer and his team-leading seventh goal of the season.
Emotions were prevalent in this two-game series and the Huskies let their’s show in the third period. There were a number of occasions in both games where players were separated by officials, but one instance in the third period saw Freeman, an alternate captain, leave the game after receiving a five-minute major penalty and a game misconduct for a facemask call. Two Maine players received penalties in the altercation.
“We took three out of four points on the weekend and it feels disappointing because I thought we had a game in hand,” Cavanaugh said. “We’re playing pretty well and we let our emotions get the best of us and took away some momentum in the third period.”
Maine got on the board at 13:00 when Chase Pearson buried a one-timer on the powerplay to bring the Black Bears within one.
The Black Bears, determined to even things up, pulled their goalie with 1:55 left in the game after calling a timeout. Jacob Schmidt-Svejstrup deflected a shot right in front of the net to even things up with just 1:12 left in regulation.
The game ended in a tie after neither side could find the back of the net in overtime. Maine outshot UConn 6-1 in the extra period.
“Tonight, it feels like we lost a game,” Cavanaugh said. “It’s something we have to learn from as a team.”
Coach noted that his team got away from what was really working and started going for “highlight-reel plays” instead and wants his team to stick to playing simple hockey.
“I think one of the hardest things to do for a team is playing very simple. It’s successful but it’s boring,” Cavanaugh said. “Guys get bored of playing simple. You can’t ever get bored of playing simple and I think we did tonight.”
UConn will be back on the road as they visit the Vermont Catamounts in Burlington for another Hockey East series.
Kevin Arnold is a staff writer for The Daily Campus. He can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.