For the first time since opening weekend in 2016, the UConn men’s hockey team has swept a team at home, taking care of business against Miami University this past weekend.
“I was certainly pleased, not only with the win today but the overall weekend,” Head coach Mike Cavanaugh said post-game Saturday. “We had a great start to the game, the first period ended 1-1. The second period, I thought we still played pretty sound and pretty well and it was nice to come out with that 2-1 lead. We knew they were going to make a push, they’re a great team and a great program, who are well coached.”
The key to both games was offensive play in the third period. In Game 1, they grabbed three clinching goals and another two in the third period of Game 2. Cavanaugh and company credited Moe Butler, the team’s strength and conditioning coach.
“I think we have a great strength and conditioning coach, Moe Butler, I think she does a phenomenal job with our guys and it didn’t just start in September, it started last July,” Cavanaugh said. “She just really has a good feel for pushing them and keeping them in great shape, and conversing with us and telling us how we should skate them on the ice, so I think she does a great job and the reason we are in pretty good shape is primarily because of her.”
There were many star performances for UConn throughout the weekend, as both Brian Rigali and Zac Robbins each grabbed three assists and a goal and Vladislav Firstov scored a pair and got an assist Friday night. Senior Wyatt Newpower also grabbed three assists on the weekend.
“You know what you’re going to get from Brian Rigali, a consistent effort,” Cavanaugh said. “I have to say Adam Karashik is the same way. That block he made on the penalty kill was as good of a block as your gonna see in a hockey game. If I can throw Zac Robbins into that group too, that junior class, they bring that lunch-pail work ethic every single day.”
In Game 1 on Friday, UConn jumped out to an early lead, scoring less than three minutes into the first period on a five-on-three chance on a Ruslan Ishakov one-timer. They gave it up quickly, though, allowing three goals in the span of seven minutes in the first period.
With the score 3-1 in favor of the Redhawks in the second period, UConn came out flying as senior Ben Freeman slotted the puck home after a pair of rebounds off Miami’s goaltender Ryan Larkin. It was Freeman’s third goal of the season and made it his third straight game with a goal.
About 15 minutes later, Firstov took a Rigali pass past the blue line, cut to his left and buried the game-tying goal. It was Rigali’s second of three assists on the night.
After allowing one more goal late in the second period, it was all Huskies from there.
UConn saw goals from Jachym Kondelik, Firstov again and Justin Howell before the night’s end, putting them in cruise control to a 6-4 victory.
“I was certainly pleased with the way we responded, I actually thought we started the game okay, but I thought Miami took it to us the first period, but I thought we responded pretty well,” Cavanaugh said. “I thought we caught them with a little bus-legs or what-not. They had a long trip out here. In the third period I thought we played and skated pretty well.”
In Game 2, it was more of the same for the Huskies, who dominated the puck in the early going and late into the game. The second period was the only iffy one, with a lot of turnovers and giveaways for both teams.
Rigali, Robbins and Alexander Payusov each grabbed a goal before the game winner from Yan Kuznetsov.
The back-and-forth matchup saw just four penalties all game, after nine the previous night, and UConn scored on their one power play opportunity. Kuznetsov took a mighty rip from range and the puck flew wide before trickling into the net off goaltender Ben Kraws.
“We talk all the time, the skill doesn’t mean anything if the will is not there, so it has to be will over skill,” Cavanaugh said. “When the will is there and the effort is there, then their skill is going to shine. If they just try to rely on the skill, then we’re going to be in trouble.”