The postponed matchup between the UConn and Merrimack College men’s hockey teams created a strong sense of anticipation leading up to Tuesday night’s game at the XL Center.
Both teams took the ice in Hartford each on high notes of their own, recently winning against other opponents prior to the Hockey East event. However, there can only be one winner, and UConn knows what it’s like to be on either side of the final score.
Aiming to keep the momentum, despite head coach Mike Cavanaugh’s previously expressed disbelief or hype into what momentum can generate, he said, “I just thought that was a real, gutsy win for our team tonight. It just seems like every week we’re playing the team of the week—last week it was New Hampshire, this week it’s Merrimack and they’ve been on a roll,” following UConn’s 3-2 win over Merrimack on Tuesday.
Starting out the game, Cavanaugh felt “it was a feeling out period in the first period” which carried into the second period after both remained scoreless. The Huskies were clutch in killing off a Warrior power play within the first minute of regulation, setting the tone early, but still playing cautiously to see what else Merrimack would run.
Throughout both the first and second periods, the Huskies prioritized shots on net while UConn goaltender Darion Hanson blocked the few shots his fellow five skaters would allow. The opening 20 minutes only had a few shots sent towards Hanson, as the Huskies were shooting 8-5 over the Warriors. Merrimack goaltender Hugo Ollas faced 13 shots off of Connecticut sticks but, too, couldn’t be broken down.
After the buzzer sounded off the end of the second period, things changed. The energy of anticipation was still there amongst teams and fans alike; nobody satisfied yet by a goal.
“I thought we really fed off that energy as a group,” Cavanaugh recalled. “It’s a Tuesday night, there’s a basketball game tonight, there’s not a big crowd here so we had to create our own energy and I certainly think we did in the third period.”
Even after the Warriors secured the first point of the night at just a minute into the final period, the coach said, “There was a lot of energy in our bench,” and the Huskies were still hungry. Merrimack forward Liam Walsh made use of a rebound from another Warrior to finally send the puck into the net.
A little over a minute later, UConn tied it up. Unbeknownst to either bench, this was the beginning of the end of Merrimack’s five-game win streak. On the second Husky power play, forward Vladislov Firstov took a shot on Ollas who rebounded it right to UConn forward Jachym Kondelik who was able to send it past him.
“[Associate head coach] Joe Pereira’s been working hard with that group. We’ve stumbled our way through the season on the power play, but you’re only as good as your next one and I think right now, we’ve gained some momentum with it. It’s going to be really important for us down the stretch,” Coach Cavanaugh offered with a sense of pride on the experienced lineup.
Making quick use of time, the Huskies wasted none and scored again at 3:12. Ollas mismanaged another rebound, this time from blocking forward Chase Bradley’s shot, allowing UConn defenseman Roman Kinal to clinch another goal and put the lead at 2-1 for the Huskies.
The next goal came not from Ollas’ mismanagement of UConn defenseman Jake Veilleux’s rebounded shot, but the lack of handling it at all. Forward Jonny Evans couldn’t get to Ollas any faster, sending the puck Veilleux originally planted in front to the back of the net.
Merrimack would not lose by two goals and lessened the Huskies’ lead to one a little over halfway through the last period. The Warriors capitalized on a power play, setting up forward Steven Jandric for a one-and-done shot on goal to put the score at 3-2.
Just when the game was about to be over, there was a last surge of energy to send Merrimack on their “merri” way. At 18:15, the Warriors had a six-on-four power play, making the final two minutes especially crucial for both teams to make serious offensive or defensive moves.
UConn’s defense outlasted Merrimack’s offense and the Huskies shut it down, with Hanson making three saves in the last 120 seconds of the game. The coach recounted, “Being able to kill off that six-on-four with a minute and 45 seconds left at the end of the game was huge. Hanny had to make one ridiculous save, the rest of it the guys blocked shots and did a good job.”
Tuesday’s win puts the Huskies at 11-10-0 and 8-6-0 in Hockey East. UConn earned three points on the night.
“We haven’t put teams away, but we really haven’t had a game where we got totally outplayed, too…Our best hockey is still in front of us.”
The hockey immediately in front of the Huskies is the 2022 Connecticut Ice Festival which will be held this upcoming weekend at the Webster Bank Arena in Bridgeport. UConn will face off against Yale, followed by Quinnipiac vs Sacred Heart.