The regular season for the Ice Bus came to a close this weekend, and UConn finished in dramatic fashion on Saturday after losing the night before to the University of Vermont.
Although they didn’t know it yet on Saturday, the Huskies were able to get it done and secure the No. 4 spot in Hockey East after their 18-15 overall season record, 14-10 in the conference.
After Friday’s game, this spot seemed far out of reach when UVM beat UConn 5-3 in a tough loss. In what head coach Mike Cavanaugh described as “not a full 60 minutes,” UConn struggled both offensively and defensively, leading to several turnovers.
“I thought there were times where we tried to pass the puck and we should have shot it,” Cavanaugh said after the 3-5 loss. “When we aren’t getting second and third opportunities, it’s usually because we don’t have a couple of guys at the net.”
In what would be UConn’s third-straight loss, the Huskies started slowly from the beginning. Ultimately, it was UVM that scored first about halfway through the first period. Vermont forward Porter Schachle found a rebounded puck to finish the job and put his team on the board for a lead.
Up next was a power play for the Huskies, which they were able to capitalize on in less than a minute in order to tie the game. Senior forwards Jonny Evans and Carter Turnbull were perfectly in sync to make it a successful run and 1-1 game.
However, UConn couldn’t hold onto the puck, and with a turnover, UVM was up again. Vermont’s Schachle had the assist this time to forward Will Zapernick with less than two minutes left in the first period, and closed it out at 2-1.
“Our biggest issues we’ve had in the defensive zone is when we [have] unforced errors. When you turn the puck over, you’re just asking for trouble because nobody’s in position defensively,” Cavanaugh said. “When the puck’s scrummed in the corner and it’s dumped in, everybody’s in position defensively so it’s hard to beat, but when you turn it over and guys are expecting a breakout pass, that’s when you get in trouble.”
To UConn’s credit, the Huskies were timely again to match the lead for a tie just over a minute into the second period. Forward Kevin O’Neil skated down to make a close shot on-net and followed his rebound to finally send it in for the Huskies’ second goal.
The Ice Bus kept rolling for a lead at just a few seconds beyond the seven minute mark as defenseman John Spetz set up a strong pass to forward Artem Shlaine. Shlaine put it in, bringing the Huskies up.
This lead would only last about three minutes, as fate would have the second period ending in a similar fashion to the previous one. UVM found a UConn turnover, and it was Vermont forward Joel Maata who brought the game back to a tie.
About four minutes later, Schachle positioned himself on both sides of the puck. Not only did he make a defensive save, but he kept possession while skating down to score his second goal of the night, putting the Catamounts up 4-3.
The Huskies spent the last 20 minutes of regulation caught up in traffic, which kept the score at 4-3. UConn pulled goaltender Darion Hanson, who made 24 saves on the night, and put an extra skater on the ice instead. Regrettably, this allowed UVM forward Jacques Bouquot to score on the empty net and secure a 5-3 win over UConn on Friday night.
“I don’t think we’re [a] very good team when we bring the puck back into our zone. We did that twice tonight when it turned over and ended up in our net,” coach Cavanaugh admitted. “I think we’re a team that, when we play north and we have first-touch breakouts and move the puck and play north, we’re a much better team than when we try to bring the puck back in and go ‘D’ to ‘D.’”
Saturday was met with a mix of emotions, as it was Senior Day for the Ice Bus seniors and graduate students, who were celebrating the end of their regular season. Still, the loss from the night before hung over the team, leaving the Huskies determined to make this game count in order to continue playing this season as long as possible.
“The emphasis going into the game was to make sure we didn’t turn the puck over,” coach Cavanaugh said after Saturday’s win. “I thought our defensemen and forwards did a great job of not turning the puck over. The focal point was getting to the front of their net, and I thought we did a good job with that too.”
On a power play chance at a couple of seconds under six minutes into play, the Huskies found their rhythm early on. Spetz found a pass from forward Ryan Tverberg to score a minute later, avoiding a costly loss of the puck.
In less than three minutes, Tverberg was quick to set the Huskies up to get a scoring streak going with Shlaine netting another puck, his second on the weekend. A direct shot on-net, this was the cleanest goal UConn had in the series. Despite Cavanaugh not wanting the “cute” goals as he fears that setting them up results in an eventual turnover, it worked for the Huskies this time.
About two minutes later, UConn had a three-goal lead on the Catamounts with Turnbull cutting through the traffic in front of Vermont’s net to push the rebounded shot from defenseman Harrison Rees in for another goal to close out the first 20 minutes.
In the opening period, UConn scored the same number of goals that it took the team to score all throughout the previous night’s game. This time, the Huskies were on the positive side of the scoreboard, leading by three and holding the Catamounts to a blanked score.
Halfway through the middle period, the game continued to be riding with the Ice Bus. Instead of falling victim to a turnover like they had done so often the night before, the Huskies were able to create a turnover on Vermont. In doing so, defenseman and freshman Jake Veilleux set up senior forward John Wojciechowski for a goal. This earned Veilleux his first career point, and Wojciechowski netted his first goal and brought the score to 4-0 for the highlight of the period, if not the game entirely.
The third period consisted of falling action to solidify the 4-0 win, with UConn killing another UVM power play to hold on to the lead completely and keep Vermont from scoring.
“I was really pleased with the effort; I thought that was the most complete game that we’ve played this season. Right from the start, that was a full 60 minutes,” Cavanaugh concluded after the win.
Once again, it was a variety of Huskies who scored, which was the case on Friday night as well, showing the depth of the team. It wasn’t just scoring goals that won the game, however.
“In all facets of the game: penalty kill, power play, five-on-five — I was pretty happy with our effort,” coach Cavanaugh said. “We want to be a team that can beat you in many different ways.”
Not only did UConn beat UVM on Saturday, but the Huskies also blanked the Catamounts in a defensive effort led by Hanson. This was Hanson’s first shutout as a Husky, and the first time all season that the opponent was held to zero points regarding shots, goals and assists.
Hanson only needed to make 12 saves for the win, with the Ice Bus swerving shots all game.
“12 shots on-net is pretty good,” Cavanaugh stated.
Moving on to the postseason, UConn will host the Hockey East quarterfinals at the XL Center on Saturday, March 12 against the No. 5 seed Boston University Terriers.