“First, I’d like to congratulate [UMass head coach Greg Carvel] and the University of Massachusetts, I thought they played a great game tonight and really had us on our heels for a good portion of the game,” UConn head coach Mike Cavanaugh said after the game. “We fought, we clawed and we hung in there. We gave ourselves a chance to get to overtime and win our first title, but it just wasn’t meant to be tonight.”
UConn fell to UMass 2-1 in an overtime loss at TD Garden in Boston in the Huskies’ first ever Hockey East Championship appearance to end the 2021-2022 season. UMass hoisted the Lamoriello Trophy for the second year in a row, this time while being defending national champions of the NCAA.
The game opened exactly as one would expect for a hockey playoff game — never mind the fact that this was the Hockey East Championship. With the score blank for both teams throughout the first 20 minutes, there was a lot to prove on each side, regardless of the reigning championship status that the Minutemen continue to boast.
At first, UMass was stronger on defense than UConn’s defensive line, led by goaltender Darion Hanson, who put out all the stops for each of the Minutemen’s 10 shots. A series of dives and using his entire frame to make the saves kept the Ice Bus rolling to hold UMass off the board.
UConn put up the first shot of the night, albeit at 3:45 into the first period. However, UMass led with 10 shots to UConn’s three by the first intermission. Many of the Minutemen’s shots came from their power play when UConn forward Chase Bradley was sent to the penalty box for interference. The Huskies successfully killed the power play and had a strong five-on-five presence immediately after, putting up a couple more shots to finish the first period with three toward the net.
The strength of the Huskies with five skaters was quickly evident early in the second period with some déjà vu. UConn forward Vladislav Firstov drove the Ice Bus to a 1-0 lead at 2:25, scoring for the second night in a row, again as the first scorer. Following assists from defenseman John Spetz and Carter Berger, Firstov was first again through their coordinated offensive and defensive efforts.
“I was real concerned,” Carvel said after the game. “UConn had been playing so well and [it] just seemed to be their time.”
From there, UConn continued to increase the shots but still trailed UMass who was steadily continuing to send pucks towards Hanson. UMass forward and Hockey East Player of the Year Bobby Trivigno sent a fast puck bouncing up and off Hanson’s pads to take a top shelf spot in the net with just under four minutes left in the second period. Although it seemed to be a one-on-one between Hanson and Trivigno, UMass defenseman Colin Felix was credited with the assist.
Shortly after, UMass defenseman Matthew Kessel was called for holding, generating a power play for the Huskies. Although unable to capitalize, this aided in adding some much-needed shots to UConn’s tallies. Still, an increase in UConn’s shots didn’t stop those coming off the UMass sticks, and the Minutemen led with 25 shots heading into the third period as UConn had 16.
Both teams battled quite physically for the last 20 minutes of regulation before forcing overtime. UMass put even more pressure on the Huskies, trying to win it within 60 minutes of play with seven more shots in the third period while holding UConn to just two. Either way, they were not enough to end the game within three periods and the game was forced into overtime.
“We just had a hard time sustaining any offensive pressure,” Cavanaugh said. “We actually decided to change the forecheck in overtime.”
Despite the adjustment, UConn fell to UMass as defenseman Aaron Bohlinger sent a strong puck to end the game and the Huskies’ season in a dramatic finish at just three minutes into the extra period.
“It was just a matter of time before we were going to score to win,” Carvel said.
Although it was not what the Huskies were hoping for, it was not necessarily beyond their expectations for UMass to win, believing that the game was truly anyone’s up until the final buzzer.
“I’m not surprised by anything in this game,” Cavanaugh said.
This also applied to Hanson, who made 31 saves on Saturday. His coach noted his excellence throughout the season, no matter the box score.
“He gave us a chance to win the game,” the coach said on Hanson’s performance. “He was outstanding, not only tonight but the whole year.”
A lot of Hanson’s consistent skill is attributed to his experience as a graduate transfer, but the Huskies did not aim to focus on experience for the championship game or to buy into it too much for themselves or their opponents. The fact of having or not having a lack of experience was put aside to focus on the present and how the game was being played in the moment.
“I don’t know if experience always matters,” Cavanaugh said. “It was simply that UMass played better than we did, I don’t think it was the experience of it.”
This is where the head coaches disagree on how experience factors into the game and the weight that it holds.
“I learned the first time in the Frozen Four how important experience is, and now we have a lot of experience in these games,” Carvel said. “You’ve got to lose before you win and I’m sure UConn will probably be here next year.”
The Ice Bus shares the same hope of returning not only for the upcoming season but during the future success of the program. UConn is steadily gaining more experience and earning credentials.
“We’re still relatively young here. The league’s 37 years old and we’re eight years in and the last three years, we finished in the top five in the league,” Cavanaugh said. “There’re 11 teams in this league, and if you’re consistently finishing in the top five in the league, I think that says something on consistency and where the program’s going.”
As a high note of the weekend, aside from making it to the semifinals and final game, UConn forward Firstov and defenseman Spetz were both named to the Hockey East All-Tournament team in recognition of their performances.
Overall, the Huskies are happy to have been able to compete for the conference title and credit Hockey East for hosting them in a competitive league and tournament.
“I’d be remiss too if I didn’t thank Hockey East. It’s been a while since we’ve been here at the Boston Garden,” Cavanaugh said. “The whole staff did a phenomenal job putting on this tournament.”
For now, UConn will look to improve more in the off-season for another historic run when they return to play in the fall.