UNH hockey: Slide continues as Wildcats fall to UConn, 4-2

  • UNH freshman Kohei Sato cuts a turn toward the puck in the offensive end during a Hockey East matchup with UConn on Jan. 26, 2018. AMANDA LEE / UNH Athletics

  • UNH senior Michael McNicholas takes a faceoff against UConn’s Max Kalter during a Hockey East matchup with UConn on Friday night. AMANDA LEE / UNH Athletics

  • UNH freshman defenseman Max Gildon fires a shot from the point during a Hockey East matchup with UConn on Friday night at the Whittemore Center. The Wildcats lost, 4-2. AMANDA LEE/ UNH Athletics

Monitor staff
Published: 1/27/2018 12:12:37 AM

DURHAM – Earning the lead and protecting it through the end was a point of pride for the University of New Hampshire men’s hockey team in the early weeks of this season.

That’s how the Wildcats won six of their first eight games and muscled their way into the conversation of potential Hockey East contenders. 

But that was a long time ago now. It may as well have been a different season because New Hampshire hasn’t been able to tap into that rhythm again for close to two months.

The latest came in the shape of a 4-2 loss at the hands of the University of Connecticut on Friday at the Whittemore Center.

A pair of unanswered goals in the second period gave the Wildcats (9-12-4, 4-8-3 Hockey East) a 2-1 lead, a cushion they protected until the final four minutes of the game.

And then it all unraveled.

Jesse Schwartz scored from close range to tie it, 2-2, with 3:17 left. Spencer Naas followed up with a wrister from the left dot that beat UNH netminder Danny Tirone (24 saves) on the far side, lifting the Huskies (10-16-2, 7-11-1 Hockey East) to a 3-2 lead with 1:05 on the clock.

The Wildcats went on the power play with 31 seconds left. Tirone was pulled for the extra skater and a 6-on-4 advantage, but UNH didn’t get more than one shot on net before the puck skipped out of their zone and Corey Ronan scored on an empty net to put the game away. 

“We didn’t handle them,” UNH coach Dick Umile said. “We didn’t do the job in our own end. … It’s very frustrating, disappointing.”

Even Huskies coach Mike Cavanaugh seemed surprised to be discussing a win in his postgame meeting with the media.

“Certainly after two periods we did not deserve to win that game,” said Cavanaugh, now in his fifth year with the Huskies. “There’s a reason why we were down 2-1 after two periods. … We had a couple chances here and there, but we didn’t sustain anything.”

Both sides missed their share of open looks through the first two periods, but it was the Wildcats who had the luxury of taking a lead into the third. That period saw the puck spend more time in UNH’s defensive end, something freshman defenseman Anthony Wyse wasn’t necessarily concerned about because that’s not unusual when playing from ahead, he said.

“That tends to happen when you have the lead in the third,” he said. “Whether you like to or not, everyone plays a little more cautious to try and maintain the lead. And obviously the other team does the opposite.”

But after the tying goal went through, UConn came out with a strong attack on its next shift in pursuit of the go-ahead goal. It came less than two minutes later. 

“The best part about it was after we tied it up, that next shift we were right back down there,” Cavanaugh said. “It wasn’t like we sat back. I really liked that mentality our team had after we tied it up.”

The Huskies scored the only goal of the first period when Max Kalter intercepted a clearing attempt by UNH and sent a shot in from high in the slot. Freshman Zac Robbins showed an acute sense for the puck extending his stick into its path and redirecting the puck past Tirone for his first goal of the season.

At the other end, the Wildcats were getting frustrated when they missed the mark on handful of chances at the open net. Marcus Vela missed on a pair of close chances during a Wildcat power play in the first.

The puck squirted out to the left of Creel where Vela hustled toward crease. With an open net in front of him, Vela snapped a shot that clipped Creel’s skate as he threw his leg up for a desperation save. The puck went right back to Vela, whose second shot also glanced off Creel.

The opportunities kept coming in the second. 

Ara Nazarian set up Vela twice on breaks into the offensive end, but both came up empty. Brendan van Riemsdyk also had an open net to shoot on about midway through the period, but he swung and missed as the pass swam by.

“We didn’t put the puck away when we had scoring opportunities, and we had some really good scoring opportunities,” Umile said. “That comes back to haunt you in the third period.”

With 8:58 left in the second, Charlie Kelleher scored from a tough angle behind the net to even the game 1-1. Nazarian gathered the puck near the apron and poked it over to Kelleher stationed between the endboards and the red line. 

It was Kelleher’s second goal in as many games and his third of the season after a three-point night against Maine last weekend.

Wyse put the Wildcats in front with 25 seconds left in the period. Blackburn was the puck carrier crossing into the offensive zone with a swarm of Huskies closing in. Blackburn banged the puck off the endboards where Derek Pratt collected and tried to clear, but Wyse picked it off near the point and shot through traffic to beat UConn netminder Tanner Creel (24 saves).

The winless drought extends to 51 days for UNH. Their last win came on the road against RPI on Dec. 6. They’re 0-7-3 since then.

UNH hits the road to face UConn on Saturday at 7 p.m. in Hartford, Conn., to close out the home-and-home series.

“I thought this was going to be the game that snapped the streak,” Wyse said. “It’s just going to have to be (Saturday) night.”

(Nick Stoico can be reached at nstoico@cmonitor.com or on Twitter @NickStoico.)

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