The UConn men’s hockey team wrapped up a huge weekend against Boston University, sweeping the series against the Terriers in convincing fashion to earn a crucial four points. The first game ended in dramatic fashion with the Huskies winning in overtime before UConn completed the sweep with a 6-1 win in enemy territory. The wins catapulted the Huskies to 24 points on the year — a new team-best — and fourth place in the Hockey East, in what was their strongest weekend of the season.
“As long as I’ve been coaching it’s always your seniors that lead the team,” head coach Mike Cavanaugh said. “Yes, we have some talented young players that bring a lot of skill and energy to our team, but the guys who drive the bus are our seniors. You need that type of veteran leadership to show these guys when times get tough.”
Friday was a perfect example of this, as the Huskies (14-13-4, 11-8-2 Hockey East) needed every bit of help from the older guys they could get to earn the first win. UConn got off to an early lead in the first period with Carter Turnbull making a nice move in front of BU’s net and slotting home his 11th goal of the season, tying himself with Vladislav Firstov to lead the team, at least at the time. The Huskies would strike again with two minutes left to double their lead, this time the goal coming from sophomore Kale Howarth, his first goal since Nov. 15. Firstov fired a shot from center ice, and Howarth was there to finish the rebound and give UConn to 2-0 lead.
The Terriers (12-11-8, 9-7-5 Hockey East) had a couple chances toward the end of the period to cut into the deficit, but a huge clearance from Wyatt Newpower and save from Tomas Vomacka kept one of the best offenses in the conference scoreless after one. As has been the case all season for the Huskies though, the second period could be a volatile one, and things took a turn for the worst.
Five minutes into the period, BU finally found the back of the net off a wrist shot from Case McCarthy that snuck past a screened Vomacka. Two more goals from Jack DeBoer and Cam Crotty gave the Terriers a 3-2 lead, and momentum had completely swung in their favor heading into the third, but that did not deter the Huskies at all.
“We have a lot of character in this locker room, boys just pushed through,” Sasha Payusov said. “We were down, and we never thought about losing. We wanted the win and we got it.”
BU continued to dominate play for the majority of the third period, sending puck after puck deep into UConn’s zone to kill the clock, content with their one-goal lead. As time wound down the Huskies entered desperation mode and pulled Vomacka with just over a minute left in search of the equalizer, and with 56 seconds left, they found it. Jachym Kondelik fired a shot from the left circle that was initially saved, but Freeman was there for the quick rebound to tie the game and send it to overtime, their second game going to OT in a row.
“Last week we lost a very tough overtime game up at Maine and we talked about when we watched the film how we sat back, we were playing for that one point,” Cavanaugh said. “We said as a team if we get into overtime again, we’re not gonna sit back, we’re gonna learn from that.”
With momentum now back in their favor and XL on their feet, the Huskies learned from their OT loss against Maine and struck immediately just 19 seconds in. Freeman forced a BU turnover in their zone and immediately found a streaking Payusov right in front of the net for the easy finish and game-winner.
“I think that was some of the chemistry that Sasha and I have created over the years,” Freeman said. “I just knew he was gonna be crashing the net, so I tried to get it through the D-man and past the goalie, so it was great that he was there.”
Next up for UConn was a trip to Boston for a rematch against the Terriers, with just one point separating the two in the Hockey East standings. BU had won four of their last five at home and were hungry for revenge while the Huskies were coming just one weekend removed from handing Maine their first home loss of the season. This game was the most important of the season for both sides, and they played like it.
UConn struck first again, this time it was Zac Robbins scoring his third goal of the season to give the Huskies the early lead. Robbins got the puck in the neutral zone off a Marc Gatcomb clearance and did the rest, taking the puck into BU’s zone and lasering a shot past the Terrier’s keeper for the goal. Each side had a couple more chances in the first, but the period would end with UConn up 1-0 and having outshot BU 15-5.
In the second period, Payusov scored his second of the weekend. Thirteen minutes into the period, Turnbull found Sasha in front of the net, and after his initial shot was saved, he got his own rebound to extend the Huskies lead to two. A goal from BU would cut UConn’s lead in half, and the Huskies would enter the third period up 2-1. But the score is never important to Cavanaugh.
“We don’t have to scoreboard watch,” Cavanaugh said. “We control our own destiny and that’s what I want the kids in that room thinking. Don’t worry about what other teams are doing, let’s worry about what we’re doing and how we’re playing, and everything will take care of itself.”
Just as Cavanaugh mentioned after Game 1, it was the seniors who took over in the third, with the man of the hour, Alexander Payusov, scoring two more goals to complete the hat trick on route to a four-goal weekend and a now team-leading 12 goals on the season.
His first came 41 seconds in off a feed from Freeman that ended in a one-on-one situation for Sasha, before he scored five minutes later once again with the assist going to Freeman to make the lead 4-1. Two more goals from seniors Freeman and Justin Howell would extend UConn’s lead to five, and BU would have no response. Cavanaugh was ecstatic with his team’s win and in particular their third period performance.
“I thought that third period was the best period I’ve seen a UConn hockey team play since I’ve been here,” Cavanaugh said during a post-game interview with Dan Connolly of The UConn Blog. “I was really proud of their effort and determination all period.”
Next up for the Huskies is another tough matchup against UMass Amherst, who sits just two points ahead of UConn in the conference standings. Friday will be the team’s senior night at the XL Center before they head back to Massachusetts Saturday to finish off the series.