In a Hockey East opening-round series that might be thought of for the offensive power of the combined combatants, it was defense that stood out on night one.
Eighth-seeded Northeastern’s defense smothered ninth-seeded Connecticut while Ryan Ruck stopped 30 of the 31 shots he faced to lead the hosts to a 3-1 victory over their Huskies brethren to take a 1-0 lead in the best-of-three Hockey East opening-round series.
“That’s playoff hockey,” said Northeastern coach Jim Madigan “It was a tight, close game. Both teams fought right to the end.”
The difference maker in the game may have been the Northeastern defense and goaltender Ruck. Entering the game with a goals-against average over 3.00, Ruck was positionally sound and his defense shut down UConn’s transition game for much of the evening.
Tack onto that the struggle for Connecticut to generate a large number of grade A or second-chance shots for much of regulation and Northeastern found a formula for victory.
“Probably not as much as we want,” said UConn coach Mike Cavanaugh when asked if his team generated enough quality chances. “We can’t be one and done; get a shot and have the puck cleared.
“We have to have some more whacks at it around the cage. Probably not as many (quality shots) as we need to be successful in this series.”
UConn wasn’t without chances entirely. Sniper Tage Thompson struck iron twice, once early and again late in the game on a power play. Maxim Letunov also had a puck picked off the goal line by Ruck on a shorthanded wrap-around in the second that took extensive video review to confirm.
But the reality is that Garret Cockerill’s power-play tally at 10:36 of the first and Brendan Collier’s rebound marker at 11:58 of the second provided the necessary offense.
That doesn’t mean that things were easy for Northeastern in the third. The ever-powerful Huskies offense, which sports three 50-point scorers, had to be disciplined in its operations in the final 20. There was a need to resist making the extra, though often dangerous, play that might pad the lead but also could end up coming back as an odd-man rush.
“We talked a lot about that,” said Madigan about tightening the reins defensively so not to make mistakes with the lead. “We’ve got some skilled forwards and you want to let them create. We’re not taking the puck out of their hands but we want to avoid some high offensive zone turnovers.
“We preached that if there’s not a play to be made, let’s get the puck down low.”
UConn did break through late with the goalie pulled on a Benjamin Freeman rebound shot. But Nolan Stevens’ empty netter in the closing minute places Northeastern on the verge of a series win and puts UConn up against the wall for its playoff life.
That, says Cavanaugh, can’t stand in his team’s way mentally in Saturday’s game two.
“Right now, we just can’t get caught up with the result. It is what it is,” Cavanaugh said. “We lost the game, we’re down one and we’ve got to bring that same energy and effort (Saturday) night.”
No. 5 Providence 3, No. 12 Massachusetts 0
Erik Foley scored a goal and an assist as Providence knocked off Massachusetts in the opening game of its first-round series. Brian Pinho netted his 10th goal of the season at 16:21 of the first. That goal stood as the only tally until Josh Wilkins and Foley each scored in the game’s final five minutes. Hayden Hawkey stopped 22 shots for the shutout. A victory on Saturday will set up a quarterfinal matchup for the Friars against Notre Dame in South Bend, Ind., next weekend.
No. 6 Vermont 5, No. 11 Maine 0
Liam Coughlin scored twice early for Vermont as the Catamounts cruised to victory to take a 1-0 series lead over Maine. Craig Puffer, Brendan Bradley and Mario Puskarich each scored single markers, while Stefanos Lekkas stopped all 31 Black Bears shots he faced.
No. 7 Merrimack 4, No. 10 New Hampshire 0
Sami Tavernier and Derek Petti each scored early goals for Merrimack as the Warriors skated past New Hampshire to take a 1-0 series lead over the Wildcats. Jace Hennig potted two assists for Merrimack to record the only multi-point game while Colin Delia remained red-hot making 25 saves in the shutout victory.