The UConn men’s hockey team opened up the Connecticut Ice 2022 Tournament in Bridgeport on Saturday, beating Yale 5-1 to advance to the finals.
The odds were against the Huskies with a Nor’easter hitting New England Friday night and Saturday as well as only a single win over Yale in program history.
“We woke up today and it was just hockey weather, that’s all it was. You look out the window and it’s snowing, that’s hockey weather,” head coach Mike Cavanaugh said about Saturday’s conditions. “We talked about that before the game that the weather wasn’t going to be a factor for us. We got on the bus and our bus driver, Mohammad, got us here in 20 minutes and it was a piece of cake so I’m just really glad we were able to play the game.”
Play the game, the Huskies did.
Yale scored first at just under two minutes into the game in what would be their only goal in 60 minutes. Yale defenseman Michael Young sent in a quick rebound past UConn goaltender Darion Hanson, but Hanson would not let up any more.
At 16:10, UConn forward Vladislav Firstov secured the tie with a goal off a pass from fellow forward Kevin O’Neil after he received it from the third forward on the line, Jachym Kondelik. Kondelik had the face-off win and sent it back to O’Neil who was able to knock the puck in.
Firstov’s goal has been a little overdue as the forward hasn’t scored in a little while, and Cavanaugh explained that “[Vlad’s] really been competing at both ends of the ice, especially since he’s come back from Christmas. He’s found a little chemistry with Kondy and Kevin O’Neil, and we’re going to need that again.”
Oh, the Huskies got it again.
A mere 27 seconds later, it was Kevin O’Neil’s turn to score and secure the lead over Yale, which would only go up from there. O’Neil found the rebound from defenseman Harrison Rees who hit the post, getting to the puck first to redirect it. “Good offensive zone play got us that second goal,” Cavanaugh said.
“We tell the guys all the time ‘if there’s someone in the lane, it doesn’t have to be on net. It just has to get by that first wave of guys trying to block the shot,’ and he was able to do that,” Cavanaugh said. “Kevin’s where he was supposed to be … He’s a hockey player in the true sense of the word and a fabulous kid, he’s been an incredible addition to our locker room.”
O’Neil actually scored on his old team: He transferred to UConn this season from Yale as a graduate student with one year of eligibility. After the game, he said “It was very weird, honestly, getting ready for the game and everything … I tried to look at it as just another game but it definitely wasn’t.”
This game was different. The Huskies would score five goals and only allow one on a team they have historically struggled to beat.
The second period saw UConn dominating Yale’s net, starting early. Forward Carter Turnbull scored from an atypical angle at 11 seconds in but according to the coach, “I’ve never seen a goal that was ugly in my life. They’re all good as far as I’m concerned.”
A little over a minute later, Firstov put another one up on the scoreboard. Again, this goal was the product of the chemistry he shares with Kondelik and O’Neil. This momentum kept up throughout the second period, and at 17:54, Kondelik would decide the game with his shot on goal to make it a 5-1 game.
The score remained throughout the third period, as UConn killed two power plays and Hanson made nine saves to seal the win.
“It’s the second year of the tournament and we’re going to be playing in the finals tomorrow night, and I think it’s going to be exciting. It’s going to be a good atmosphere for our players and a really good test for us, whoever we play,” Cavanaugh anticipated. “I just have a preference to be playing in the game, and we are. Whoever we play, we play.”
Sacred Heart and Quinnipiac would play after UConn, with the winner slated to play UConn in the championship game on Sunday at 4:30 p.m. Ultimately, this would be Quinnipiac.
Sunday afternoon started out with that atmosphere, pushing both teams to play intensely, and the first two periods would remain scoreless.
It wasn’t until the third period that a goal was scored, and Quinnipiac forward Desi Burgart did the honors a little over seven minutes in.
The Huskies spent the rest of the period chasing the Bobcats, but weren’t able to keep up.
UConn pulled goaltender Darion Hanson in the final minute of the game, which allowed Quinnipiac forward Ethan de Jong to score on the empty net to win the Connecticut Ice Championship for the Bobcats.
The Huskies return to Hartford on Friday, Feb. 4 at 7:05 p.m. to play the Providence Friars to resume the regular season along with Hockey East play.