Huskies survive third period scare against Mercyhurst
The UConn men's hockey team returned to the Freitas Ice Forum on Friday night and defeated Atlantic Hockey opponent Mercyhurst 5-4 in the first of a two-game series.
The power play was the key for the Huskies (9-9-2, 6-7-1 AHA), as they finally started to show signs of life on special teams, which has been a struggle all season.
Prior to last weekend's series at Robert Morris, the Huskies had converted on six of 65 chances with the extra skater. After going 3-12 last weekend, there seems to be some confidence building for the Huskies, who were nearly perfect on the power play Friday night, converting on three of four chances.
Both of UConn's goals in the first period came with an extra skater. Tyler Bouchard got the scoring started about five minutes in, when he snuck the puck past Lakers' goaltender Jordan Tibbett from a difficult angle, as he was nearly on the red line when he shot.
Bouchard then assisted Trevor Gerling on the second goal of the period. Gerling won the battle for the puck down near the crease and got the best of Tibbett for his seventh goal of the season.
Skyler Smutek was critical to both goals, orchestrating the power play from the point and feeding the puck into the forwards in a position to find the net.
The power play was once again impressive to start the second period. Mercyhurst's Zac Frischmon went to the box for elbowing two minutes into the period. Less than a minute later, Bouchard found himself in perfect position to redirect a shot from the point by Jacob Poe and get credit for his second goal of the night.
"We've been moving the puck pretty good," Bouchard said. "Tonight we had pretty good entries."
UConn pushed their lead to 4-0 five minutes later. Poe picked up his fourth assist of the night on a shot from the point that redirected off of Cody Sharib and past Tibbett just four seconds after UConn's fourth power play of the night had expired.
Tibbett was pulled after the fourth goal for the Huskies and replaced by the Lakers' No. 1 goaltender, Max Strang. Strang was seldom tested in the final 12 minutes of the period, making two saves.
With 20 seconds left, Lakers' captain Grant Blakey found himself wide open in the slot and in perfect position to tap a pass from Paul Chiasson past UConn goaltender Matt Grogan to cut the Huskies' lead to 4-1 at the second intermission.
Mercyhurst came out firing in the third period and cut the lead to 4-2 four minutes in. Matthew Zay got to the net and was able to beat Grogan with a one-timer from about five feet out for his sixth goal of the season.
The Lakers put the Huskies under serious pressure throughout the opening minutes of the third, and picked up another goal at the seven-minute mark, when Ryan Misiak beat Grogan from in close on the power play at a time when UConn looked like the desperately needed a kill. The goal cut UConn's lead to 4-3.
But the Huskies made it 5-3 just over a minute later, when Brant Harris forced the puck past Strang, who failed to cover it up, for his sixth goal of the season, ending any advantage the Lakers seemed to have at the start of the third period.
Things got interesting once again down the stretch, as the Lakers cut the lead again to 5-4. With only a couple minutes to play, the Huskies lost focus on defense, and left Chiasson wide open in front of the net on Grogan's weak side. A pass across the middle found Chiasson for the easy goal.
Strang went to the bench with just over a minute to play, and it looked like Mercyhurst were ready to send the game to overtime, but UConn was able to keep the puck near the neutral zone for most of the final minute. Strang had to return to the ice for a faceoff and the Huskies' pressure forced him to remain in the game until the final horn sounded. UConn was able to survive and get two very valuable points.
Interim Head Coach David Berard pointed to Mercyhurst's late second-period goal as the one that let the Lakers back into the game, and he warned his team of the danger the goal posed during the intermission. However, Berard thinks that a game like Friday's, where the Huskies nearly blew the lead, could prove to be beneficial for a young team as it continues to grow and learn.
"We have to go through those experiences," Berard said. "We stayed, as coaches, we were calm, cool and collected because they have to figure it out. We've had some other games this year that we've given up some leads and we've made games a lot closer than they need to be, and they need to go through it, and they need to experience it and figure it out and find a way, and they found a way."
Berard was impressed with the performance of the power play unit, and particularly the play of Smutek and Poe along the blue line, as their efforts were critical to four of the goals scored on the night.
"They read off each other, they read the play well, they get pucks through, they're really good puck handlers and that's really effective to have on the power play," Berard said.
The Huskies and Lakers will play again on Saturday night at 7:05 p.m. at the Freitas Ice Forum. WHUS 91.7 FM will have the call of the game.
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