By JOSH SULLIVAN
After a season that started off without a starting goalie; after losing the team’s best defenseman for nine games to two different injuries; after losing three games to UMaine this season, the Wildcats are finally playing hockey with something they lacked all season: confidence. It couldn’t have been more apparent than it was during their 5-1 win over the UConn Huskies Saturday night.
Danny Tirone stood tall for 24 saves and Captain Matt Willows banged home two goals in the third period to lead the UNH Wildcats to their second win of the weekend.
The weekend sweep came at the perfect time.
“We’re playing the best hockey we’ve played,” Willows said. “I think we’ve proved to the league, to everybody and to ourselves especially that we can compete. It’s exactly what we look for going into the post season. Finally everything’s clicking and it feels good.”
The Wildcats went into the weekend series knowing that UConn has struggled a bit in its first season of Hockey East play, but the team with a record of 9-17-2 has played spoiler to several hot teams this year including UMass-Lowell, Boston College and defending champion Union.
“That’s a well-coached team,” UNH head coach Dick Umile said. “They play hard and they’ve given teams fits. But we’re playing well right now. All the lines are contributing.”
The Huskies have been plagued with injuries this season, but head coach Mike Cavanaugh doesn’t think that’s an excuse for not winning.
“You look at the Patriots, and they just won a Superbowl without their defensive captain Jerod Mayo,” he said. “I’m not saying we’re the Patriots, but we can’t blame losing on one player being out.”
Jay Camper got the Wildcats on the board with 13:42 in the first period, when he took Warren Foegele’s pass in the slot and ripped a slap shot that made its way past Nichols’ blocker side and went bar down. The Wildcats led 1-0.
“He plays in the [defensive] zone great, and as we know defense translates to offense,” Willows said.
Soon after Casey Thrush and Matt Willows went in on a two-on-one, but Willows was swallowed up by the backchecking UConn defenseman and Thrush’s shot was right into Nichols’ pads.
Tyler Kelleher scored at the 10:48 mark in the second period as a direct result of some tic-tac-toe passing from linemate Dan Correale and Matias Cleland. Correale got the puck from Cleland in the slot, slid it over to Kelleher who then slipped it between Nichols’ five-hole to make it a 2-0 game. Andrew Poturalski nearly made it 3-0 immediately after, but was robbed by Nichols’ outstretched glove on another one-time opportunity.
Senior Trevor Gerling got the Huskies on the board with 2:41 left in the second period. After a scrum in front of the net, Gerling gathered a rebound off the stick of Patrick Kirtland to squeak the puck past Tirone .
UNH didn’t back down, though. Just seconds later, Cleland got the puck at the top of the left faceoff circlefrom Matt Willows and fired a wrister at the net. Nichols was screened by Willows and the puck soared over his shoulder. UNH was back in control 3-1 with 2:05 left until the second intermission. The goal was just what Umile needed out of his squad.
“I was on the bench and I said we got to get one here, otherwise it’s gonna come back to haunt us,” he said.
The Wildcats came out hard in the third period, but despite several scoring chances, they only managed two shots on net in the first five minutes of the period, one of those a backhand pass attempt by Grayson Downing. But with 14:45 in the period, captain Matt Willow snuck a Thrush pass in between Nichols’ legs, and UNH went ahead 4-1.
Willows scored his second of the period when Downing went in the corner and dug out a loose puck and fired it to Willows, who was standing all alone at the faceoff dot. The one-timer hit the back of the net, and UNH found itself in unfamiliar territory, leading 5-1.
“I gave him an opportunity to shoot the puck and he likes to do it and it’s pretty good at it,” Downing said. “It makes it easy when a guy can shoot like that.”
Tirone continued his strong play on the weekend, combining to make 45 saves on 47 shots faced.
UNH will host a back-to-back games against Merrimack on Friday and Saturday Feb. 27 and 28. The ‘Cats are currently in ninth place in Hockey East with 17 points. They trail Maine by just one point for eighth place, which would lock up home-ice in the first round of the Hockey East tournament. Maine has a two-game series at Providence, who currently sits in fifth place.