Last night was the 3rd and final regular season battle of I-91 between UMass & UConn. Each team has won on home ice so far this season with the Minutemen winning 4-2 and the Huskies winning 8-2. The Huskies had home ice again last night in Hartford. UConn was riding a program best 7 game unbeaten streak that has seen them knock off 4 ranked opponents in that stretch, Providence, Boston College, Northeastern And Boston University. UMass has had more of an up and down road during the same period, going 2-4-1 with a win over UMass Lowell & a road tie against BU. For UConn a win can help them finish as high as 4th in Hockey East, with a 1st round bye, while UMass looks to climb as high as 7th, hosting an opening round series.
The opening period saw the Minutemen control play. UMass had a heavier forecheck and sustained pressure in the UConn zone. However UConn caught UMass on a quick breakout while UMass was committed down low. Freshman forward Brian Rigali and Senior defensemen David Drake set up Senior Spencer Naas for a wrist shot at the top of the left circle that beat UMass keeper Matt Murray. Naas’ 12th goal gave the Huskies the 1-0 lead. At 13:21 UMass’ Mitchell Chaffee and UConn’s were both called for roughing putting the 2 teams on 4 on 4 play. The Minutemen tied it at 14:48 on a nifty give and go between Freshman George Mika and Sophomore Niko Hildenbrand from the left circle. UMass would strike again at 16:19 on an offensive zone face off win by Mika, who slid the puck back to a streaking Hildenbrand who fired a shot from the right side hash mark of the left circle that hit off the skate of Freshman Austin Albrecht for his 2nd goal of the season. UConn’s Tanner Creel had been 7-1 over his last 8 starts was looking shaky at this point. The Huskies had a last minute attempt to even things out when Defenseman Johnny Austin was sprung on a breakaway in the waning seconds. A UMass defender was able to harass Austin enough to allow Murray to turn away his shot. UMass outshot UConn 12-5 in the period.
The middle period seen UConn’s Freshman defenseman Adam Karashik in alone on Matt Murray who blocked the wrist shot with his upper right body. UConn would carry play this period but were unable to put one past Murray. The Minutemen came alive around the 10 minute mark but didn’t garner much. Overall it wasn’t much a noteworthy period. UConn outshot the Minutemen 7-5.
The 3rd period seen UMass back on the attack and carrying the play. Each team had chances but nothing major. The intensity wasn’t really turned on until the final few minutes of the period. UConn was solidly hemming UMass in their zone in the lead up to the Huskies pulling Creel for the extra attacker. It didn’t take UConn long to capitalize on the extra skater when Senior Jesse Schwartz banked the puck in off of a sprawling Murray to tie the game at 2 with 1:20 remaining. It looked as if UConn’s strong play streak would continue while UMass would find away to give away 2 points again. However Freshman phenom Cale Makar would have something to say about that when he weaved in and out of UConn defenders and put the puck past Creel just :12 later. Makar’s 4th goal of the season put the game away for the Minutemen and dashed the Huskies hopes of a 4th place finish in Hockey East. Overall UConn outshot the Minutemen 26-22 while the faceoff battle was split 29-29.
This was a tightly contested, evenly matched affair that left all 5,213 in attendance feeling they got their money’s worth. The Huskies regular season is over, sitting in 5th place is the best that they can hope to finish. A 1st round bye is theirs as of now but Maine and Lowell have 2 games in hand this weekend and can both jump them. The worst that UConn can hope for is a 7th place finish which would give them an opening round home series. Overall at 15-17-2 (11-12-1 HEA) its been a productive season for 5th year coach Mike Cavanaugh. It will be the highest finish in Hockey East for UConn in their short 4 year history in the conference. For the Minutemen and 2nd year coach Greg Carvel, who currently sit in 8th place, the best they can do is a 7th place finish. UMass hosts Providence on Saturday to wrap up its regular season. Each team has won on home ice against each other this past November. PC is looking to tie BC for 1st overall. UMass, with 13 freshmen on its roster, should consider this a successful year in its building process.