When you’re facing the best defensive team in the league in a college hockey tournament, one thing is a must. Connecticut coach Bruce Marshall knew entering his club’s semifinal matchup with defending champion Mercyhurst that the Huskies couldn’t fall behind.
The game plan looked executable for the opening minute. When UConn freshman Matt Grew was sprung on a breakaway, his seemingly perfect shot was headed top shelf on Mercyhurst goaltender Peter Aubry. But in every effort to prove why he was named MAAC Goaltender of the Year for two years running, Aubry flashed his glove at Grew, robbing him of a goal and UConn of a chance to take an early lead.
From there, Mercyhurst responded with two goals before the end of first period, killing Marshall’s game plan and in essence killing UConn’s hope of advancing to the MAAC finals.
“You know that with Mercyhurst, when they get a lead, they’re tough to beat because they have a proven goaltender down there,” said Marshall. “Being down 2-0 we were still playing well. We were generating scoring chances. But they’ve got those natural goal-scorers that bury their chances, and that’s what they did.”
“It’s definitely a little bit of a blow to our confidence [to be in a 2-0 deficit],” said UConn captain Mike Boylan, who finishes his career as the school’s all-time leader in games. “We wanted to prove to them that we could play with them and then move on from there.”
Instead, from that point, things never got better. UConn never beat Aubry and, in the end, the Huskies were on the wrong end of a 5-0 decision, ending a short, but exciting, Cinderella run through the season’s end for the tournament’s number six seed.
Some might say that the win for Mercyhurst was revenge. Two years ago, as the tournament’s second seed, the Lakers were knocked off by UConn, 2-0, the only other shutout in MAAC tournament history. UConn would go on to the true Cinderella run at that point, winning the tournament from the fourth seed.
But that game had one very different aspect — the venue. The 2000 tournament, as was the 2001 event, was hosted by UConn on its home ice in Storrs, Conn. This time, with the tournament being played at Holy Cross in Worcester, Mercyhurst coach Rick Gotkin felt the playing field was leveled.
“Playing UConn on neutral ice was definitely in our favor,” said Gotkin. “I like [Holy Cross coach] Paul Pearl a lot and think his team had a heck of a season, but I was glad, in a way, that they weren’t in it because it made this tournament one on neutral ice.”
Regardless of venue, things for Mercyhurst went according to game plan. That said, they didn’t necessarily go easy. If any team in the league would be able to come back, it would be Connecticut. The Huskies faced a month of adversity just to qualify for the playoffs.
Entering a January 25-26 weekend series with Fairfield, UConn held a 5-11-6 record and stood out of a playoff position in the MAAC. Six consecutive wins, though followed for the Huskies and suddenly not only were they looking at the playoffs, but were looking at home ice.
The rollercoaster wouldn’t end there. UConn’s next five games saw it winless; the final game of the season against Bentley was its only hope to gain momentum. The Huskies did exactly that — winning 7-4 before winning last Saturday, 6-5 in dramatic fashion.
“We thought we had hit our stride in January and February and coming down to the end of the year we thought we were playing well,” said Boylan. “But it was always a battle for us. We never looked at any weekend and said, ‘Phew! We can just pick up our four points and move on.’ It was always, ‘We need these four points. These are a huge four points and we need to make sure everyone is on the same page.'”
“When it gets to 3-0, when you know you have to keep it to two to try and win the game, it’s a long way back,” said Marshall. “But, all year we’ve had to scratch and claw. Not every weekend has been, ‘Okay, we’re on a role here and we can just roll them out and play.’ There’s been so many times when we just needed to get back into the game. There was a point in the year that we weren’t even in the playoffs, and we had to battle just to get to this point.”
Truth be known, the size of the fight in the dog can carry a team a long way. The Huskies were certainly dogs with plenty of fight.
Thursday, though, this dog ran into a brick wall in Aubry, and a Laker team that just wouldn’t be denied.
Said Marshall, “I thought our effort was there. I thought we kept getting pucks to the net. But we just needed that one goal to get us rolling a little bit.”
“We didn’t get it done and they capitalized on the mistakes that we made,” said Boylan. “That’s something that we knew Mercyhurst has done all year long. That’s what makes them so successful, I think. We talked about that coming into the game — that they thrived on capitalizing on the opportunities they had.
“They definitely did that today.”