Despite taking three weeks off the No. 12 Northeastern men’s hockey team wasted no time before grabbing a quick goal versus the UConn men’s hockey team and goaltender Tomas Vomacka.
Thirty seconds into the first Huskies vs. Huskies game of the year, Northeastern’s (12-5-2, 7-4-1 Hockey East) Matt Filipe streaked down the left flank and deked Vomacka before sliding it between his legs and into the net.
“That’s the most disappointed I’ve been since, probably, the [Boston College] weekend, we strung together a good stretch of hockey there for probably 11 games. Tonight, we didn’t,” UConn head coach Mike Cavanaugh said post-game.
UConn (7-8-4, 4-5 Hockey East) lost for a variety of reasons Friday, specifically the team’s lack of aggression on the attack, the skill gap handling the puck between the two sides, Northeastern’s dominant power play defense and Vomacka’s inconsistency in net.
“Our team did not have it tonight,” Cavanaugh said. “We have to coach better, play better, our special teams have to be better. The effort from the entire UConn hockey program needed to be better tonight and it wasn’t.”
UConn’s lack of aggression
It was clear from the get-go that UConn had come out flat-footed on Filipe’s breakaway finish, however, they were generally solid for much of the first period. They registered just four shots in the first, but attempted 13, which is the same number as Northeastern. As head coach Mike Cavanaugh mentioned in the post-game presser, they just could not get them on target. Their rips were either blocked by Northeastern’s tough defense or flew wide.
“We didn’t get any pucks through, that was the biggest issue we had in that first period,” Cavanaugh said. “We didn’t get any pucks down to their net, so it was one-and-done and we were out.”
Once the first period passed and Northeastern had flipped three pucks by Vomacka, though, UConn seemed to ease up on their attack and sat back in defense – even on free pucks in Northeastern’s zone. They weren’t chasing down the puck like they do when they are playing inspired hockey.
“It started right from us being late coming on the ice for the game, I just didn’t think that we were into the game right from the get-go and spotted them three goals,” Cavanaugh said. “We really didn’t make a push until it was five-nothing.”
On Zach Solow’s unassisted goal in the first, a UConn player passed the puck right to him and then the defense seemed hesitant to close him out, giving him ample space to work and score.
Final from @XLCenter
Huskies fall to No. 12 Northeastern. Firstov and Evans with the UConn goals.
— UConn Men's Hockey (@UConnMHOC) January 4, 2020
“We turned two pucks over that we had full control of, where we weren’t under any pressure. On the first goal we turned the puck over and Adam [Karashik] gets caught up a little bit high there, and on the second goal, same thing, we had full control and passed it right to their guy. It was more us being lackadaisical and out to lunch a little bit, and not ready to play a hockey game.”
When they had the puck, they just weren’t careful with it. Cavanaugh mentioned two occasions when they had full control of the puck and passed it right to a Northeastern defender. Three of Northeastern’s goals came from UConn directly giving them the puck, Filipe’s goal, Solow’s first goal and Tyler Madden’s five minutes later.
“They are a team that, if you turn the puck over, they are highly skilled and they’ll make you pay,” Cavanaugh said.
In the first period Madden, who is among the nation’s top goal scorers with 14 on the year, picked the puck off Carter Berger and dangled in-and-around one UConn defender before going around his teammate – who set a solid pick for him – and scored.
It took until they were down five goals to none before kicking into gear on the offensive end. With just over a minute to go in the second period, Vladislav Firstov picked up a slick pass from Carter Turnbull – who has a had a great sophomore campaign thus far – and used his professional-caliber shooting ability to send it past goaltender Craig Pantano.
Northeastern’s skill was on another level
Many times throughout the season Cavanaugh has emphasized that his focus for the team is “will before skill”. Well it just so happened that Northeastern had more will and skill in its 5-2 victory.
They played a suffocating form of defense and were terrors in the transition game, quickly and decisively finding the right pass or whole in UConn’s defense to create chances.
“I liked our offense those first two periods, I thought our guys bought into our game plan and we got pucks down low and went to work in that offensive zone,” Northeastern head coach Jim Madigan said post-game.
On the power play in the second period, Northeastern just had the puck on a string. They placed dynamite passes onto their teammates sticks and when space opened up for Solow in front of goal Madden put the puck on a tee for Solow to give them a commanding 3-0 lead.
Northeastern power play kills
Coming into Friday’s game, Northeastern had the second-best penalty kill percentage in the nation at .932 – UConn is not in the top-36 teams listed – then they went on the kill four more penalties Friday. Eleven of UConn’s 28 total shots were on the power play, but none of them found the back of the net.
Northeastern was incredibly disciplined on the penalty kill, allowing UConn to pass around over-and-over until time expired. They closed down shooting lanes and forced the Huskies to take rushed shots that usually flew wide.
“I thought our [penalty kill] did a great job all night long, particularly on the 5-on-3 there at the end of the game,” Madigan said.
Their skill on the penalty was particularly important in the final five minutes, when Mike Kesselring was given a game misconduct for cross-checking Ruslan Iskhakov next to his team’s crease. Aidan McDonough was also given two minutes for goaltender interference at the same time, so UConn had a 5-on-3 opportunity for a full two minutes but couldn’t score. They were unable to break down Northeastern’s power play kill for the rest of regulation as well, leaving the final score 5-2.
Despite the lack of scoring, Cavanaugh was satisfied with the offensive effort on the power play.
“I thought the power play was fine, the kid made some good saves,” Cavanaugh said. “We missed an open net, the puck bounced over our stick on the open net. We had 11 shots on the power play. At least we attacked the net, which I liked. We still have got to have a little more pace to it.”
Vomacka was inconsistent
Throughout this season, Vomacka has been the hero for UConn. He has had multiple 40-plus save games this season and his teammates have voiced confidence in him all year. He can be spectacular, there were a few occasions during Friday’s action when he made acrobatic saves.
That’s not the concern, though. He can make wonder saves for days, but when it comes to the fundamental ones he struggles at times.
When looking deeper, his statistics do not jump off the page. He has allowed three or more goals in 14 of 18 games played, including five or more in five of those games. His save percentage is sitting at .889 at the moment, which places him well below the top-50 in the country. Most importantly, he has allowed four or more goals in each of the last three games.
Of course, that isn’t entirely his fault, he has a young defensive line in front of him. He has faced an average of 27.6 shots per game this season, so shots are bound to get past him – that’s hockey.
“He was okay. Again, the whole team, it’s never just on the goaltender, on your power play or on your penalty kill,” Cavanaugh said. “It’s a team effort and when you’re letting a guy come in all alone on a breakaway, or you’re letting a guy come into the top of the circles and rip pucks, you’re making life tough on your goaltender. I’d rather have us just let them shoot from outside the circles and take away rebound opportunities and he’s going to be a good goaltender. That wasn’t the case tonight.”
In his return to the starting lineup from illness he faced 18 shots in the second period, when he let up the fourth and fifth goals of the night, but it was the three goals he gave up in the first, when he only saw seven shots, that made the difference.
Then in the final period, he faced just four shots and gave up nothing as UConn’s offense sprung back to life. It was too little, too late for the Huskies.
This season UConn has matched up with a swath of ranked teams and have fared one of two fates in those contests: they have either been just as good or even better than the team or gotten blown out of the water.
Of their 15 remaining regular-season games, seven are against currently ranked opponents. It will be an eye-opening rest of the season regarding the direction of the program.