BOSTON -- Friday night at Matthews Arena, there was very little separation between Northeastern and Connecticut.
The visitors posted a 31-29 shot advantage, but Northeastern scored once in each period ― including once on the power play ― to snag a 3-1 win in Game One of Hockey East postseason play.
“That’s playoff hockey. It was a tight, close game and both teams fought right until the end,” Northeastern head coach Jim Madigan said. “We’re going to have another battle here tomorrow night, and I thought it was a battle out there.”
Sophomore Ryan Ruck made 21 of his 30 saves while pitching a shutout through two periods, while defenseman Garret Cockerill, senior Brendan Collier and junior Nolan Stevens all found the back of the net for the victorious Huskies.
It was a tight game, and that’s probably how they’re all going to be from here until the finish. UConn answered Cockerill and Collier’s goals with less than 1:30 to play as freshman Benjamin Freeman banged a rebound past Ruck.
“I thought we played a pretty good hockey game for 60 minutes,” UConn head coach Mike Cavanaugh said. “I liked our fight. I thought we played well because that’s a pretty good hockey team over there, but we just didn’t find a way to get into the back of the net at 5-on-5. Special teams was the story.”
Stevens added an empty-netter at 19:17 to give Northeastern some insurance, but it looked as if the other Huskies were not done.
Sophomore Tage Thompson looked to score another lead-trimming goal with 24.7 seconds left on a bouncing puck in the slot in front of Ruck, but an offsides call after review turned the goal back.
From there, Northeastern closed out the final frame in which 14 of its 29 shots on goal were tallied, improving to 9-0-0 all time against their fellow Huskies.
No matter the situation, Northeastern has confidence.
“Our older guys are battle-tested, and we have a lot of them,” Madigan said. “So, there was some calm and poise on the bench, even when we thought it was going to go to 3-2. We said to our guys, ‘We’re OK here.’ Before we had to say it as coaches, the players had said it.”
Although UConn carried the better of the play in the opening frame, the hosts got off to an opportunistic start as they have early in games all season long as Cockerill scored NU’s 47th first-period goal at 10:36.
After taking a feed from senior captain John Stevens at the half wall, junior Dylan Sikura found Cockerill above the right wing circle for a hard shot through traffic. The power-play strike was Collier’s seventh goal of the season, tied for the team lead among defenders.
“I thought we did a good job creating some offensive zone time, but how we climbed above the puck and through the neutral zone was key for us,” Madigan said. “We had some good gaps and forced them to dump pucks in.”
Collier added to the hosts’ lead 11:58 into the second period, picking up the rebound that freshman Matt Filipe’s shot left at the doorstep after UConn’s Adam Huska made one of his 26 saves.
Junior defenseman Johnny Austin set Freeman up for UConn’s only goal at 18:39. The Maine native rookie crashed the net and banged home his third of the season from the low slot.
The visitors had plenty of opportunities to make the score even closer, but Thompson’s two pipes loomed large in the end.
Fellow sophomore Max Letunov had a golden chance to slice into Northeastern’s lead late in the second, but Ruck made a great butterfly stop to deny the bid. The hosts fended off a UConn power play, one of four on the night, to preserve the score at that point.
“It was centimeters from being a goal,” Cavanaugh said. “Sometimes, that’s the way it goes.”
Just the way it goes. But, there’s more hockey to play on Saturday night.
For UConn, the mindset is simple. Win.
“We just can’t get caught up in the result,” Cavanaugh said. “We lost the game, we’re down one. We’ve got to bring that same energy and effort tomorrow night.”