By JUSTIN LORING
It took everything they had, but after constant pressure all game UNH was able to score two third-period goals to defeat Connecticut by a score of 2-0. In one of the best individual goaltending performances of the year, UConn’s sophomore goaltender Rob Nichols kept UNH off the scoreboard for two and a half periods. Nichols tallied a whopping 42 saves on the night, and at one point had seen 75 percent of all shots attempted in the game.
That all changed with nine minutes to go in the third period, however, when Kyle Smith, who didn’t know he would be in the lineup until breakfast that morning, knocked home a rebound goal to give UNH a 1-0 advantage and push the Wildcats into the Hockey East quarterfinal, after winning 5-2 the previous night.
“During the week, Coach [Scott] Borek told me to be ready at any time,” Smith said. “Luckily … I got the opportunity to step in and play, I’m just thankful that I got the opportunity. [Borek] told me to not rule it out … he just said ‘Be ready if your name is called’, and he prepared me for that.”
While Brett Pesce was credited with an assist on the play, it was actually Harry Quast who started the breakout. Jamie Hill slipped behind the defense and had a free look on Nichols, who stepped up and made a nice stop on the junior forward. Smith crashed the net, literally, getting his stick on the puck and knocking it in before the defenseman took him out into the cage.
“I was in the neutral zone debating whether to change or not, and then I see Harry [Quast] dish it up to Jamie Hill breaking through,” he said. “I saw him get a breakaway, so I thought ‘I better follow up and get that rebound.”
“I grew up playing minor hockey with Jamie Hill and have seen that play 1,000 times,” Smith continued. “I knew he was going forehand-five hole [between the legs of the goalie], I’ve been there before.”
The first good scoring chance came in the first period after Pesce led a rush into the offensive zone. Dangling around a defender, Pesce went towards the crease and passed the puck to an open Tyler Kelleher. Kelleher held the puck for an extra second trying to get Nichols to commit, but Nichols got his pad out for the first of many big saves he would make on the night.
His next big save came on a three-on-two involving UNH’s top line. Grayson Downing carried the puck into the zone, drawing a defenseman and sending a pass across the zone to Matt Willows. Willows laid off a quick pass to Casey Thrush in the slot, but his shot was kicked aside and the rebound was beyond the reach of Thrush’s stick.
Once the second period came, UNH looked like it was hitting its stride. During the period, the Wildcats outshot the Huskies by an incredible margin of 19 to 3, but once again it was Nichols who came up big and kept the ‘Cats off the scoreboard. A big part of UNH’s advantage in shots was its impact on the powerplay. After going 3-for-4 the night before, the ‘Cats faltered in all four attempts Saturday night, all of which came in the second period.
“I think the difference was special teams killed us last night, tonight it didn’t kill us. We did a terrific job killing their penalties, but it took a lot of wind out of our sails in the second period,” UConn head coach Mike Cavanaugh said. “I think we spent so much energy killing penalties … a large portion of [the period] was spending eight minutes killing penalties.”
On UNH’s first powerplay of the second period, Kelleher had an opportunity to bury a rebound, but defenseman Ryan Segalla destroyed Kelleher and was called for a Charging penalty. Kelleher took exception to the hit and grabbed a hold of Segalla’s ankle, forcing him down. The referee called both parties for coincidental penalties and UNH had continued its powerplay 5-on-4 instead of having a 5-on-3 look. Downing had his best look of the period, receiving a pass from behind the net and trying to fire a rocket into the top-left corner, but again Nichols made an incredible glove save to keep the game scoreless.
The fans started to take notice of Nichols’ effort and in the third period, he continued his relentless streak of keeping the puck out of the net. UNH had a possession in which it got off four shots in high-scoring areas, but Nichols kept sprawling his body across the goal line to keep the game even. Once he froze the puck, the fans rose to their feet and gave him a standing ovation.
Once Smith potted his third goal of the year, UNH took advantage of its dominant time of possession to try and run out the clock. Nichols made a costly mental error with under a minute to go, when he played a puck behind the net but turned it over. Willows intercepted the puck and fed it to an open Downing in the slot. Downing cradled and ripped a shot top right past Nichols, bringing the game to its final of 2-0 with 47 seconds remaining
“I’m really proud of the group of guys I have in [the locker room], and this was going to be an interesting year for us because it was our first year in Hockey East,” Cavanaugh said. “I think we surprised a lot of people … Robbie was terrific, he’s had a lot of great games this year and I think tonight was his best.”
UNH head coach Dick Umile echoed the praise of Nichols.
“Nichols, I thought, was tremendous,” he said. “After the second, it was frustrating because we couldn’t score. We just stayed with it … the goal by Hill and Smitty, and then the goal by Grayson. Thank god for that second goal.”
UNH is currently riding a seven-game win streak, the longest in the nation. Despite the accolade, Umile didn’t want to over-analyze the streak. “I don’t know if we’re the hottest team in the league, but I tell you what we’re playing well. I wouldn’t want to play us. I just think we’re a good team.”
Because No. 11 Merrimack upset No. 6 Northeastern on Saturday, UNH will travel to Providence to face the No. 2 Friars. No. 5 Notre Dame will take on No. 4 Lowell and No. 7 Vermont faces off against No. 3 Boston College. “I don’t care [who we play],” Umile said. “I’m going to enjoy pasta Sunday dinner.”
The quarterfinal series will again be best two-out-of-three games, with all three taking place at the home of the higher seed. UNH is looking to upset Providence, a team they split the regular season series with, winning 2-1 on Jan. 13 and losing 1-0 on Nov. 22.