BY: Gerry Cantlon, Howlings
BRIDGEPORT, CT – UCONN got three points from Max Kalter and two goals from Tage Thompson and escaped a wild second period with a 6-3 win over the Maine Black Bears before 2.173 at the Webster Bank Arena.
The Huskies (9-7-6 overall,5-3-2 HEA) and Black Bears (7-11-3 overall, 1-7-1 HEA) started a unique home-and-home series Thursday night. The games will be held in two different arenas as both squads started the bulk of their Hockey East conference schedule.
The Huskies were the home team and on Saturday, Maine will be the home team at the conclusion of the Frozen Fenway series with a rescheduled 1:30 pm Saturday start time as a concession to Saturday night’s NFL Patriots playoff game at Foxboro.
The Huskies saw two leads vanish in a decisive four-goal second period, but Connecticut showed the kind of perseverance they couldn’t find when they played against Yale.
“Tonight was a perfect example of that. We got down 1-0. We tied it. They tied it at two. We go up 3-2, and (Maine) tied it at three. (Wyatt) Newpower gets a big goal and we played a pretty solid third period and OJ’s goal gets us up 5-3. It was huge and overall; I was happy with the effort.
“The Yale game was one of a few games we weren’t in it for sixty minutes. Tonight we were, and you have to persevere and take a body blow and keep swinging. You can’t have a glass jaw,” UConn head coach Mike Cavanaugh said.
The Huskies regained the lead as their ace didn’t disappoint his family and friends who were in attendance.
Thompson was all alone in the slot and took a Max Kalter’s pass after he had swung around the net, nearly lost the puck, regathered it and then hit Thompson on the tape. Thompson ripped his 13th at 13:31 and made it a 3-2 Huskies lead.
“It’s very important to play the puck back there,” a laughing Kalter said. “I kinda just threw it at the net really. It’s pretty easy when you have Tage and Letty (Maxim Letunov), to pass to.”
Kalter earned a goal and two assists and was the game’s first star.
Maine caught a break in tying the game at 15:02. The Black Bears junior, Nolan Vesey, the younger brother of the New York Rangers’, Jimmy Vesey, was on a semi-broken play but retrieved the puck that came out of a crowd of players and turned and shot. The Toronto Maple Leafs’ draftee watched his 40-footer elude goaltender, Adam Huska, to knot the game at 3-3.
It was his fifth of the season.
The Huskies power play skills helped them regain the lead with 18 seconds left. Letunov sent a short pass to Newpower, who stepped off the right point and let a wrist shot go along the ice that sailed past Black Bears goalie Matt Morris for his second goal of the year giving UCONN a 4-3 lead. The goal was the eventual game-winner.
“I was able to make a move on the defenseman,” the freshman Newpower said. “Good things happen when you shoot. I don’t think he saw it. Tage was in front of him. I really don’t think he saw it.”
Maine had a great chance to tie the game at four when they had a 39-second five-on-three power play and the rest of a five-on-four for 1:21 in the third period that UCONN successfully killed off.
“That was a great effort we had Tage, Max and Johnny Austin out there and they did a great job with their rotations. We got some big blocks and once David (Drake) gotta out of the box we were able to get an icing there that was a big kill for us,” said Cavanaugh.
Maine head coach Red Gendron was clearly frustrated about the loss and tried his best to be philosophical about their failure to score with their two-man advantage.
“The score was still 4-3. Had we scored at the time, it would have made things easier. Because we didn’t score on a five-on-three, do you slit your throat and go home? Of course not,” Gendron said with his deep New England accent. “It’s still four-to-three. You chip one in when we were five-on-four, but we didn’t.”
The Huskies finally got the two-goal lead they were seeking at 14:19 of the third period.
Kasperi Ojantakanen picked up a rebound of a shot blocked in front, retrieved the loose biscuit, and fired a 35-foot wrist shot high to the glove side on Morris for his third of the year.
The Black Bears caught the Huskies playing too passive defensively early in the second period and made them pay for it. Maine tied the game at two.
“I don’t know if it was the defense, but we didn’t have much back pressure because if we don’t have back pressure, they (the defense) have to be passive. We have to better with our back pressure (on Saturday). We call it, ‘Following back in the zone,’ and it did cost us two goals tonight,” said Cavanaugh.
Maine’s Blake Byron was able to retrieve the puck unchecked in the right corner and made a nice short pass to Cam Brown, the Black Bears top scorer. Brown put a perfect cross-ice pass through the box to Brendan Robbins. The right-handed shot was on the left wing side, and he made no mistake, drilling his second of the season past Huska at 6:32.
The Black Bears scored the game’s first goal on two perfect plays.
The first came from Brown. He came across the blue line, pulled up, and found defenseman Rob Michel speed into the open left wing lane behind Huskies defenseman Johnny Austin. He opened his stick blade perfectly and redirected the puck inside the short-side post on Huska at 7:27 for his first goal.
“We did some nice things, but not enough of them. We gotta be ready to play them on Saturday,” said Gendron.
The Huskies came back to tie the game at one. Ben Freeman was behind the net and used his body effectively to shield the puck. Freeman fired the pass in from behind the net to Spencer Naas, who split the defensive coverage and snapped in his 12th goal of the season at 11:47.
It was his fourth goal in as many games and is one shy of his team-best five straight that was set back in his freshmen year.
“It was a great goal and good offensive zone play. We have been working on this all the time and Ben Freeman made a nice cutback, and Spencer was in front and finished it,” Cavanaugh stated.
The Huskies grabbed the lead at 2-1 on the powerplay.
Huskies newcomer, Philip Nyberg, in just his fourth game, was at the left point and spotted Letunov along the right-wing boards. Letunov took the pass and spun to the top of the right wing circle and looked to take the shot. Letunov spotted and hit Kalter who was open down to the right of Morris. Kalter perfectly tipped his shot to Morris’ short-side. Morris seemed to be playing for a Letunov shot leaving him vulnerable. Kalter’s third goal of the season came at 15:34.
Each team had solid chance to tie or extend the lead in the last minute-and-a-half of play.
Maine’s Mark Hamilton had a wide-open left wing side and walked in and let a sharp wrist go. Hamilton’s shot just missed the far post with 1:16 remaining that could have tied it for the Black Bears. Newpower had an opportunity with 10 seconds to go. His righthanded shot that came from the left point was a rising wrister that sailed just above the crossbar and could have given the Huskies a two- goal lead before the first intermission.
The series now favors UCONN 3-2-3.
The last meeting was last season March 16th a 1-1 overtime tie.
Maine’s 4th line center, Peter Housakos’ younger brother, Tasso, plays for Westminster (Simsbury) Prep.
UCONN has played in Bridgeport five times and are 4-4-0 overall playing at Webster Bank Arena (nee Arena at Harbor Yard)
For Maine’s Associate Coach, Ben Guite, it was a homecoming of sorts. Guite returns to Bridgeport where he played for the AHL Sound Tigers in their first season 2001-02 and again two years later 2003-04.
It was also a return for Maine’s Jay Leach, the team’s other assistant coach who played collegiately at the University of New Haven (ECAC North) in the late 1970’s (1977-1979). The program was then in Division II and played just up the road at the Milford Ice Pavilion. Leach’s nephew, of the same name, played with Guite in Bridgeport in 2003-04 and is now an assistant coach with the Providence Bruins (AHL).
Gendron also has his own ties to Connecticut. He was an assistant coach for the Yale Bulldogs (2011-2013) under Keith Allain and was a part of their NCAA championship team four years ago.
Cavanaugh spent his off day in Watertown taking in a CT prep school hockey game between Taft and Westminster. The Taft Rhinos were victorious, 5-2. Cavanaugh was keeping tabs on Taft’s Nik Allain who has committed to UCONN for 2018-19 and is the son of current Yale head coach Keith Allain.
The two coaches were chatting as all coaches would be doing during the game!
UCONN goalie Matt Grogan (AHA years) is playing with Peoria (SPHL). The Huskies have a new goalie coach after parting ways with former Boston Bruin, Andrew Raycroft. In his place is Manchester native Ross MacKinnon, who had a brief three-year minor pro career primarily at the lower level.
MacKinnon played Division III college hockey at Neumann College and moved up to the Orlando Solar Bears (ECHL) and with Pensacola (SPHL). MacKinnon also had three stops in the now defunct Central Hockey League with Allen, Bloomington, and Tulsa, who are all now in the ECHL. He ended his playing days with the Watertown (NY) Wolves of the Federal Hockey League (FHL).