BRIDGEPORT, Conn. — Iona’s 3-0 victory over Connecticut sharpened the focus on the race for the eighth and final playoff spot in the MAAC. The Gaels’ victory gives them 21 points and eliminates the Huskies and Fairfield. Iona can clinch a playoff berth with a win or tie against the Stags on Saturday night, or if AIC does not defeat Army Friday.
“I’m real proud of our guys. We didn’t talk about needing to win the game. It was obvious that this was a key game for both teams,” Iona coach Frank Bretti explained. “We were just concentrating on executing our systems and I thought we played a complete game.”
As if fighting for a playoff spot weren’t enough, both teams had to contend with Mother Nature as the start of the game was delayed over an hour. Both teams didn’t reach the Arena at Harbor Yard until after the original start time of 5 p.m.
The Gaels, who were the home team in the opening game of round two in the MAAC Challenge, opened the scoring at the 8:20 mark of the first period as Jamie Carroll struck for his 12th goal of the season. The freshman winger wristed home a shot from the top of the right circle that beat UConn goaltender Artie Imbriano over his right shoulder. Mark Hallam and Tim Krueckl assisted on the game-winning goal.
“I got kind of lucky,” Carroll explained. The puck bounced right to my stick and I had some time to put in. It was a big goal [because] it got the team going a little bit and we were all pumped up.”
Carroll’s luck was UConn’s misfortune. The Gaels’ “CHecK” line of Carroll, Hallam and Krueckl combined for five goals and eight assists in the three-game sweep of the Huskies.
Imbriano was the key in keeping UConn’s playoff hopes alive beyond the first period. The native of Stoneham, Mass., stopped 17 of 18 shots in the opening period.
UConn controlled the tempo at the start of the second period and nearly scored on a power play in the opening minutes of the period, but Marcus Baxter hit the left post with his shot from the high slot. As a result, the Huskies were unable to solve Gaels netminder Ian Vigier, who made 27 saves on the night.
“Vigier made the saves that he need to make,” Bretti said. “In this rink you can get some shots on you. Ian, especially on the power plats, answered the bell. I was real happy he got the shutout. It’s a big confidence boost for him.”
“I also thought their goaltender played very well.”
The Gaels’ confidence got a huge boost when they scored a pair of goals in the span of four minutes late in the second period.
Brent Williams gave Iona a two-goal lead at 12:06 as he skated down the slot, fighting off a check, and slipped a backhander under Imbriano’s pads. Freshmen defensemen Matt McMahon and Ryan Swanson assisted on Williams’ 12th of the season.
“It’s a big win,” Williams said. “We knew that UConn had been playing well lately. At the very start of the game we thought we were in some trouble, but we kept on fighting and we showed some character.”
Williams had a hand in the Gaels’ third goal of the game as he corralled a rebound of a McMahon point shot and slid the puck across the top of the crease for a Ryan Manitowich tip-in at 16:09 — just 12 seconds after UConn killed off a Gael power play. The goal was Manitowich’s team-leading 14th of the season.
“I thought we got a couple of bounces in the second period [after] UConn picked it up in the second period,” said Bretti. “We didn’t want to be overselective coming out in the second period.”
Despite holding a three-goal lead, the Gaels could not afford to breathe easy. In their previous meeting with the Huskies, UConn showed the ability to battle back and throw a scare into Iona. Iona proved that it had learned from experience.
“In the third period we made sure we buckled down in our end,” Williams said. “If we were in trouble, we chipped the puck off the glass. We didn’t do anything risky tonight and it paid off for us.”
Iona weathered three shorthanded situations in the third period to preserve the victory and the shutout for Vigier. However, the freshman from Notre Dame des Lourdes, Manitoba was forced to make a big save with two minutes to preserve the shutout. Vigier did a split to make a pad save on Tim Olsen’s deflection in front.
“We were looking for the win, and fortunately enough, we got the shutout,” said Vigier. Hopefully, we can carry over the good work to Saturday night.”
“We played well in all three zones and just never stopped working. We played 60 minutes and we basically shut down their offense and took advantage of the chances we had.”
Vigier enjoyed his first appearance at the home of the AHL’s Bridgeport Sound Tigers.
“It’s a nice change from some of the rinks we see. It’s a good experience whenever you can get in one of these games,” he said.
Bretti believes his team is finally rounding into shape as the playoffs approach.
“We feel, over the last 10 or 11 games, that we have been playing some pretty good hockey. We’ve been concentrating on playing our game,” he said.
“We kind of feel that we have our lines figured out. Our top six forwards, night in and night out in the second half, have been getting big goals for us.”
Iona (10-21-1; 10-14-1) finishes off the MAAC regular season when it faces off against Fairfield on Saturday night in a 7 p.m. start at the Wonderland of Ice. The game marks the final Division I hockey game in Stag history. The game will be broadcast as the MAAC Game of the Week (www.maacsports.com).
UConn (8-22-3; 7-15-3 MAAC) finishes off the season by hosting Sacred Heart at the UConn Ice Arena at 7:30 p.m.