STORRS, Conn. — The opening game of the Toyota UConn Hockey Classic featured a matchup between two top 20 teams in No. 15 UMass and No. 18 Union.
It lived up to its billing at a chilly Mark Edward Freitas Ice Forum.
A game that featured dazzling special teams play, jarring hits, and breathtaking saves ended with Massachusetts rallying from a 3-1 deficit at the end of the second to pull out a 4-3 win over the Dutchmen, who entered the contest with a nine-game winning streak, second best in the country.
The electrifying play of UMass forwards Casey Wellman (two goals, one assist) and James Marcou (three assists) helped UMass rally in the third, while goalie Paul Dainton (36 saves) turned away repeated Union shots in the early going and in the closing 1:42 when Union pulled goalie Keith Kinkaid to create a swarming attack on the man advantage.
“We improved in the second, and in the third period finally made it a pretty good game,” Massachusetts’ coach Don ‘Toot’ Cahoon said. “Paul made crucial saves and that was a great difference for us in the game, no question.”
After minimal stoppage in the first half of the opening period, Massachusetts was whistled for a delayed penalty on Michael Marcou. The sophomore went to the box following a feverish scramble in front of Dainton, which lasted several seconds until UMass was able to regain control of the puck.
Marcou wasn’t alone long, as teammate Will Ortiz took a seat next to him just 38 seconds later after laying an elbow to Union goalkeeper Keith Kinkaid, who came out of the net to play a clear by the Minutemen penalty kill unit. A brief scuffle following the play saw Ortiz assessed a five-minute major for elbowing Kinkaid, giving the Dutchman a five-on-three advantage for 1:22.
Union won the draw and quickly pushed the puck into the Minutemen zone, casually shuffling the puck around the perimeter before Jason Walters ripped a shot from the right boards, giving Union a 1-0 lead at 15:57 with 4:45 still left on Ortiz’s major.
Masssachusetts’ penalty kill settled down after a hectic sequence around the net that saw Dainton lose his stick while making a sprawling save. The puck appeared to slide behind him before it was cleared out and brought into the Union zone, where Wellman launched a shot that was turned away by Kinkaid.
After killing off the remaining 42 seconds of Ortiz’s major to open the second, UMass was presented with its first power play chance of the game when Shawn Stewart was sent to the box for interference at 9:10. However, the game remained tied thanks to the Union penalty kill unit and Kinkaid, who turned away a blast from dead center by Matt Irwin midway through UMass’s man advantage.
The Minutemen’s top line finally broke through when T.J. Syner slipped his fourth goal of the season past Kinkaid. Martin Nolet and Marcou were credited with the assists.
Massachusetts’ second power play of the period proved disastrous, as Union tallied a short-handed goal to break the stalemate. Greg Coburn snatched the loose puck out of the neutral zone and found Andrew Buote, who broke down the left side and deked Dainton before depositing the puck over his shoulder for his second goal of the season.
The Dutchmen capped off the special teams’ scoring with 6.4 seconds left in the period when Stephane Boileau’s tally sent the Minuteman into the locker room down 3-1.
“The first two periods weren’t happy,” Wellman said, “They outbattled us, outshot us. We definitely had a good tempo in the third.”
After matching penalties presented a four-on-four situation, Massachusetts pulled to within one thanks to some dazzling skating by James Marcou, who carried the puck into Union’s zone, splitting three defenders before his shot from the left post was denied by Kinkaid.
However the sophomore Hobey Baker candidate was at it again seconds later, splitting the defense again a pushing a pass to Wellman, who beat Kinkaid on the right post to make it 3-2 at 5:37.
At 6:58, Michael Lemonte won a faceoff in Union’s zone and pushed the puck out to Ortiz, who atoned for his earlier penalty by tying the game on his eighth goal of the season.
Wellman scored his second goal of the game and 15th of the season at 15:21, giving the Minuteman a one goal lead they wouldn’t relinquish. Syner and Marcou were credited with the assists. With three helpers, Marcou added to his Division I leading assist total, while Wellman moved up to second in goals.
“James is a good playmaker and I really like to shoot the puck,” Wellman said. “If I get open, he is going to find me. We definitely have built some chemistry with each other, we know where each of us is going to be on the ice, and try to build off of that.”
Despite a sloppy third period, Union coach Nate Leaman cited several missed chances early that hurt his team.
“I though for 40 minutes we played great hockey,” he said. “We were up 3-1, but I felt it could have been even more. I thought the first 10 minutes of the third we just played defense and that’s a lesson we need to learn. We can’t let up; our foot’s got to be on the pedal the whole time.”
UMass (11-5, 6-4 Hockey East) will face Bentley in the championship game Wednesday at 7:05, while Union (8-4-5, 4-0-3) will take on Connecticut at 4:05.