Defense can make or break games, and this past weekend the Wildcats faltered greatly giving up 14 goals in two games against UConn.
Friday, Wildcats fans had good reason to doubt their hometown team early on as the opposing UCONN Huskies tallied three goals in the first five minutes of regulation. Sophomore center Ruslan Iskhakov, the 43rd overall pick in the 2018 NHL draft, got the scoring started at 1:45 in the first period with a tip in that slipped past a sprawled-out Robinson.
Soon after, Huskies sophomore wing Carter Turnbull converted the second goal of the night with a wrister from point blank range. The bleeding continued a minute later when senior defenseman Wyatt Newpower ripped a slapshot from the right faceoff circle past Robinson to extend the lead to three. UCONN head coach Mike Cavanaugh praised his team’s early start. “We made some pretty good plays, got some bounces and we were fortunate that it went our way.
Yet, the Wildcats did not crumble, and they scored two unanswered goals to close out the period, and another one in the opening seconds of the second period.
Junior wing Patrick Grasso gave UNH fans their first glimmer of hope when he took advantage of UNH’s 5 on 3 power play by scoring on a slap shot from the left faceoff circle, his ninth of the season. A minute later, junior wing Eric MacAdams scored on the power play to get his seventh of the season. MacAdams snuck the puck past UCONN sophomore goalie Tomas Vomacka.
Grasso detailed his goal after the game. “We had some pretty good movement there. (Jackson) Pierson made an unbelievable pass, there was a good screen in front. It’s a five-man goal.”
The Wildcats launched a succession of shots as the first period closed out. None of them reached the back of the net, but the ripple effect of their offensive onslaught was felt when sophomore center Filip Engaras tied the game with a power play goal 1:10 into the second period.
Things took a turn for the worse, however. With 17:35 elapsed in the period, Huskies sophomore wing Jonny Evans scored to give UCONN a 4-3 lead. The goal came with some controversy, as UNH scored a near goal on the preceding possession. The puck may have rolled over the line, and for a brief moment, the Wildcats thought they had scored. UCONN did not bat an eye and raced up the ice to score. After the goal, the refs went to review the UNH would-be goal.
A five-minute review resulted in the referees announcing that UNH did not score. Fans disagreed, vehemently. Following the decision, the referees were staring at the jumbotron replay. Their facial expressions showed that they may have second guessed their call. Play continued despite the ordeal.
UNH head coach Mike Souza downplayed the importance of the lengthy review. “It shouldn’t matter. It wasn’t a goal.”
Cavanaugh downplayed it as well, stressing the importance of situational preparation. “Anytime they go to review, you have to prepare your team for the worst and hope for the best,” he said.
Within 40 seconds of the faceoff, UCONN scored again. First-year forward Vladislav Firstov, the 42nd overall pick in the 2019 NHL draft, nicked a one-on-one goal past Robinson to give his team a 5-3 lead.
Come the third period, the Huskies attack stayed strong with Evans drifting across the offensive zone and netting a goal in the upper stick side of the net. Soon after, sophomore wing Eric Esposito scored his third goal of the season, bringing UNH within two goals.
An empty net goal from Evans sealed win for the Huskies, and it also gave the winger his second hat-trick of the season.
Souza was critical of his team’s defensive play on Friday. “We didn’t execute defensively at all, I thought our funneling, defensive transition back in our end, is something we’re usually pretty good at, but it was not good tonight.”
To the Wildcat’s dismay, more of the same came in Saturday’s game. Sophomore goalie Ty Taylor got the start for UNH.
UConn scored first when Iskhakov netted a goal assisted by Evans four minutes into the game. Thirty-six seconds later, Grasso tied the game with assists from Pierson and junior wing Charlie Kelleher.
Later in the period, Grasso scored his second goal of the game to give UNH a 2-1 lead. The good times did not last, as Firstov tied the game at 2.
UNH extended the lead to 5-2 in the second period with two goals from senior forward Alexander Payusov and one from junior forward Zac Robbins.
The five goals got Taylor pulled from the game, bringing Robinson back into play.
Not much changed as Robinson proceeded to give up two more goals, extending the tally to 14 goals against over two games.
UNH looks to rebound from a disastrous weekend as UVM comes to Durham for two games this upcoming weekend. The Catamounts (3-18-4, 0-13-2) are currently winless in the Hockey East, and Souza made it clear that their record does not represent them as a team. “I just look at how many close games they’ve been in… the one goal game thing sticks out to me. I’d like to think our guys know not to look at their record.” Time will tell if the Wildcats can refocus against UVM.