Droughts are frequent in the desert climate. Connecticut’s hockey team arrived in Arizona suffering from its own drought — thirteen years without any trophies in tournament play.
Ironically, or poetically, the drought ended in the Desert Hockey Classic on Saturday night.
The Huskies (8-6-6) were fueled by another strong performance from goalie Rob Nichols in a 4-1 victory over Brown. The victory had Connecticut coach Mike Cavanaugh sentimental after the game.
“Four years ago, when I took the job I said I had three goals. One was graduate players, make them better men, and win trophies,” he said. “This is the first (trophy) and I’m really happy for that group in there.”
The game didn’t start the way the Huskies had hoped. Brown’s Derek Byrd found space during a 4-on-4 sequence and buried the third shot of the game past Nichols. Despite conceding the first goal, the Huskies weren’t discouraged.
“We had a great period, I think we had 16 shots on net,” Cavanaugh said. “So we just had to stick with what we were doing and we really didn’t change anything.”
Two minutes into the second period, Spencer Naas netted his third goal of the tournament to tie the score at 1-1. Teammate Max Kalter called the goal the most important moment of the game.
“I think after the first one we really felt the change in momentum. The whole second period we were flying, the bench energy was great, we were buzzing,” said Kalter, who later scored the game-winning goal halfway through the second period.
In the meantime, Nichols and the defense stood tall preserving the lead.
“(Nichols) played great, he played well all weekend. I also thought we played pretty good team defense in front of him,” Cavanaugh said.
Added Nichols, “(The defense) was huge, (Kasperi Ojantakanen) had an unbelievable block in the second. Besides their goal, they didn’t really get a whole lot in our zone.”
Cavanaugh was proud of the defensive effort as well.
“I think we held them to 20 shots all game,” the coach said. “If you can hold a team to 20 shots, that’s playing pretty good team defense.”
Connecticut had eight opportunities on the power play but only converted once. Still, Brown coach Brendan Whittet felt the penalties were where the game was lost for the Bears (3-10-1).
“We were short way too much,” Whittet said. “You’re not going to win games killing eight penalties, that’s just not going to happen.”
Benjamin Freeman scored the lone power-play goal to extend the Huskies’ lead to 3-1 6:57 into the third period. The center was playing on the top line for the Huskies and struggled early. A teammate’s encouragement helped him relax.
“(Freeman) hadn’t had a good game and Max Letunov went up to him at the end of the second period and told him, ‘Relax, we’re going to be fine.’ And sure enough there he is on the goal for us,” Cavanaugh said.
Down by two and granted a power play with 4 minutes remaining, Brown opted to pull its goalie to create a 6-on-4 matchup. The scheme worked for getting shots on net, but none managed to get through.
“Last night, when you give up eight goals you usually aren’t going to be successful,” Whittet said referencing Brown’s 9-8 double overtime victory over Arizona State in a semifinal. “At least we were able to come away with a perspective that we’re able to come back in games if we do the right things.”
Corey Ronan sealed the outcome with an empty-net goal with 1:07 to play.
The significance of the tournament title also wasn’t lost on Kalter.
“It’s a stepping stone for our program moving forward,” he said. “It’s great to be a part of.”
The Huskies’ victory came despite the absences of leading scorer Tage Thompson (Team USA) and goalie Adam Huska (Slovakia), who are at the World Junior Championships, and a handful of others dealing with injuries and illness.
“We went into the weekend saying there’s no excuses,” Cavanaugh said. “I thought our guys battled hard. We haven’t changed the way we played, we just other guys stepped up and played pretty well.”
No. 18 St. Cloud State 4, Arizona State 2
The consolation game featured a familiar matchup as St. Cloud State faced Arizona State for the third time in the calendar year after the two teams opened the season with a series.
The Huskies ran ahead from the start, jumping to a 3-0 lead through two periods. Robby Jackson had two of the three goals from the fourth line.
St. Cloud killed off four penalties to keep the Sun Devils scoreless before Arizona State broke through in the third period. The Sun Devils scored twice in four minutes thanks to Tyler Busch and Steenn Pasichnuk to pull to one goal halfway through the third period.
The hosts had one more opportunity in the final 90 seconds when they had a 6-on-4 advantage, but Jackson completed a hat trick with one second left after being awarded a goal on a penalty shot with the Sun Devils’ net empty.