By Greg Laudani, Staff Writer
After what was an offensive clinic for the Wildcats in Game 1, dazzling goaltending halted all their scoring chances until the third period in Game 2.
UConn goalie Rob Nichols dazzled with 42 saves, but the Wildcats broke through with late goals by Kyle Smith and Grayson Downing to advance to the Hockey East Quarterfinals in their 2-0 win over UConn on Saturday night at the Whittemore Center.
UNH head coach Dick Umile said he was proud of the way his team fought through the adversity of facing a red-hot goaltender to salvage its seventh straight win.
“I was most impressed with how we stayed with it in this game,” UNH head coach Dick Umile said. “It gets frustrating when you have 19 shots in one period and can’t score. But they stayed with it and won the game.”
Nichols was especially dominant on the penalty kill. After UConn’s Shawn Pauly was called for tripping with 4:36 to play in the second, Nichols buckled down. The Wildcats threw shot after shot on net but could not get one past Nichols. He highlighted the penalty kill with a flashy glove save to deny a shot by Grayson Downing.
“Robby (Nichols) was outstanding, he’s been that way all year long,” UConn head coach Mike Cavanaugh said. “He’s had a lot of great games this year, but I think tonight might have been his best. He was fabulous in net.”
UNH continued attacking Nichols in the third early and often. But Nichols kept dominating. Andrew Poturalski dashed up the right wing, dangled around a defender and lifted a shot on net from the doorstep. Nichols quickly slid over to reach his pad out to deny Poturalski.
After Poturalski’s shot, the Wildcats grabbed the rebound and got the puck on Tyler Kelleher’s stick in the low slot on the opposite side of the ice. Kelleher ripped a shot but somehow, Nichols dove across his crease to deflect the shot away.
The crowd at the Whittemore Center gave Nichols a standing ovation after the unreal sequence.
Following the loss, Nichols was quick to deflect attention away from himself. He instead praised his teammates for their efforts on Saturday night.
“I think guys were playing desperate tonight,” Nichols said. “I could see it in a lot of guys, especially the seniors. They weren’t guaranteed another game. So I thought a lot of guys were battling tonight and doing everything they could to help the team out.”
Brett Pesce talked postgame about how his team hung in there, even when Nichols had appeared to steal the night.
“It gets frustrating not being able to put the puck in the net when you face a hot goaltender like that,” Pesce said. “But you just have to keep going, work hard and eventually it will come.”
Smith was finally able to give Wildcat fans the opportunity to celebrate a goal. At 11:02 of the third, Jamie Hill darted through UConn’s defense and lifted a shot that bounced off Nichols’ pad. But Kyle Smith was right there to collect the bury the rebound chance before he collided into the UConn net.
“I still don’t know how it went in, but I’m glad it did,” Smith said. “I just saw the ref pointing and it was a good feeling.”
Downing added a goal with 47 seconds remaining in the game to put the game away.
Cavanaugh said UNH can go deep into the conference playoffs the way the Wildcats are playing right now.
“I think they are arguably the hottest team in the league right now with the way they’ve been playing,” Cavanaugh said. “We didn’t generate a lot of offensive because they had the puck a lot.
“They really do a good job of managing the puck and I think they will have a great chance on moving on to the Garden.”
Umile was asked after the game if he thought his team is the hottest in Hockey East. He deflected the question while asserting confidence in UNH.
“I don’t know if we’re the hottest team in the league, but I wouldn’t want to play us,” Umile said. “I just think we’re a good team and we’re clicking on our lines and our defense.”
Pesce said the gritty win over UConn will give UNH more confidence going forward in the playoffs.
“It just shows that even in low-scoring games, we can compete hard and play very solid defense, and obviously it starts with Tirone,” Pesce said. “Seven in a row is a streak here, so we have to keep it going.”