After a disappointing showing in the Connecticut Ice tournament last weekend, the UConn men’s hockey team came back with its most impressive performances of the season against New Hampshire.
The Huskies (11-12-4, 8-7-2 Hockey East) notched back-to-back 7-4 victories over a UNH team (13-11-2, 7-8-1 Hockey East) that received 81 votes in the last USCHO.com poll. In the crowded Hockey East standings, these two wins vaulted UConn from eighth place to fourth place, where they are now tied with three other teams (Providence, UMass Lowell and Maine).
“The fact that UNH was a team that was one point ahead of us going into this weekend, it’s a big sweep against them,” head coach Mike Cavanaugh said after the game.
The weekend got off to a great start when UConn scored three goals in the first 5:11 of Friday’s game in Durham. However, the Wildcats battled back with three straight power-play goals to tie the game 3-3 early in the second period. Then, UConn took the lead back with two goals in under a minute at the end of the second period, one by Jonny Evans and the other by Vladislav Firstov.
The Huskies never looked back after that, and Evans found the back of the net two more times, including a full-ice empty netter, to earn his second hat trick of the season. In addition to Evans and Firstov, the UConn scorers in Friday’s game were Ruslan Iskhakov, Carter Turnbull and Wyatt Newpower. Firstov and Jachym Kondelik also recorded three assists each.
On Saturday, the offensive explosion continued, but it took a little longer for it to get going. Iskhakov got UConn on the board first, but UNH answered with two first period goals. But Firstov tipped in a shot from Newpower at the end of the first to tie the game at two.
That gave the Huskies some momentum for the second period, where they dominated and put the game away by going up 5-2.
“The second period is I think where we won the game,” Cavanaugh said. “We really dominated that from start to finish. One of our best periods of the year. I thought we kept them under pressure the entire time.”
In the third period, UConn iced the game by netting two more goals for their second consecutive seven-goal performance. The 14 goals are the most for the Huskies in a two-game span since joining Hockey East in 2014.
Kondelik and Alexander Payusov joined Iskhakov and Firstov on Saturday’s scoresheet with two goals each, and Zac Robbins also found the back of the net. UConn got production from up and down the lineup this weekend.
“I think we got scoring from everybody,” Cavanaugh said. “We got scoring from all four lines, and that’s a great recipe for success, when you have all four lines chipping in and it’s hard for the other team to just focus on one and try to shut one line down.”
Perhaps the unsung hero of the weekend was goaltender Tomas Vomacka. Although letting up four goals in each game won’t help his goals against average, the timing of his saves was key. Any time the game was close, he locked down and made some really great saves. He also faced a ton of shots in each game and turned away most of them, making 42 saves on Friday and 38 on Saturday.
“He’s our rock,” Payusov said. “We can rely on him when we need him. He keeps showing up, and we gotta show up for him too.”
The offense showed up as good as we’ve seen all season. Kondelik said that he’s had confidence in this team all year, but he believes the offense has never been playing better than it is right now.
“I look next to me in the stalls, and I see just good players, so I’m really confident in the team going on,” Kondelik said. “I think right now we’re really getting it going … If we play like this, I think we can go really, really far.”
For UNH, this weekend was a punch in the mouth, but head coach Mike Souza, who was an assistant coach at UConn for two seasons before going to UNH, said that the Huskies earned those wins.
“Credit UConn, they wanted it more than we did obviously this weekend,” Souza said. “Unacceptable defensive performance on our part, but hats off to Mike’s team. I thought they competed hard, and they made more plays than us, that’s for sure.”
Saturday’s game attracted the largest crowd the XL Center has seen for a UConn hockey game this season, reported at over 8,200. The fans were loud and into the game, and Cavanaugh said that really is a factor.
“I think it’s fantastic,” Cavanaugh said. “The more crowds we can get like that the better … It certainly gives the team energy. That’s a home-ice advantage when you get that. I can’t say enough about the support we get from our loyal fans.”
Now, the Huskies have a two-week break before they go up to Maine for two games with the Black Bears. Cavanaugh said he plans to use that time to get the players some much-needed rest and help guys get healthy, and also to fix some things they didn’t do well this weekend, like the penalty kill.