HARTFORD -- Entering the game two points ahead of Merrimack in the crucial race for the eighth and final home ice playoff spot in the first round, UConn had a chance to gain some separation and avoid losing the head-to-head tiebreaker.
It was only fitting that the team's most clutch performer came up with a big goal in a pressure situation to lift the Huskies past Merrimack, 1-0, in front of 4,194 at the XL Center on Tuesday evening.
Freshman Spencer Naas scored his 12th of the season, his fifth game-winning goal, with 5:18 to play in regulation as the Huskies were transitioning up ice into the Merrimack zone.
"I really like to play in the big situations. Those are the moments you think about as a little kid. You dream about playing on the big stage, playing in a big moment. I like to play in those situations. I've been lucky enough to capitalize a few times this year," commented Naas.
"This is what gets you up in the morning. This is fun. Our kids love the fact that we're in Hockey East, one of the best leagues in the country, and we're battling for home ice. That's terrific," said UConn coach Mike Cavanaugh.
Fellow rookie Corey Ronan brought the puck over the blue line and threw a centering feed towards Brent Norris, who gave a behind the back pass to Naas. Right before crashing to the end boards Naas lifted the puck just high enough to beat Merrimack goaltender Rasmus Tirronen.
"I would never have been in that position without Corey and Brent making great plays. I found myself with a defenseman on my back. I just tried to get the shot off as quick as I could. I knew if I could get it off quickly I could beat the goalie to the near post," explained Naas.
Only Jack Eichel and UMass Lowell's C.J. Smith have more goals among Hockey East rookies. The success of the Minnetonka, Minn. native is something that his coach expected and hopes to see continue.
"It's not a surprise to me at all. His track record is he had 30 goals a year in high school in Minnesota for the last three years. Besides being able to skate really well and shoot really well, Spencer has that sense to find the open spot and where to go to find the puck," said Cavanaugh.
Not only did the goal give the Huskies two crucial points in the standings, but it helped erase bad memories from Saturday's 10-1 beatdown at the hands of Providence College.
"I was very proud of the team tonight especially coming off Saturday night where it was a tough one for us. We got punched right in the mouth. We were able to come back, regroup, gather ourselves and play a solid game from start to finish," said Cavanaugh, whose team is now tied for seventh with Northeastern.
It was a third consecutive loss for Merrimack, a team that is 1-5-1 over its last seven games and will enter this weekend's series against Maine tied for ninth place with those Black Bears.
"You're not going to win too many hockey games not scoring a goal," said Warriors coach Mark Dennehy. "We had some guys who weren't going. We had some guys stuck in mud."
"Our big guys got to play big. We have a couple 6-4 guys who didn't knock anyone over. No use being 6-4 if you're going to play 5-10," said Dennehy, when asked what it is going to take for his team's fortunes to turn around before the Black Bears come to North Andover.
Like Merrimack, UConn will face the team it is tied with in the league standings as well this weekend. Cavanaugh's team faces a home-and-home series against the other Huskies, Northeastern. UConn travels to Matthews Arena Friday night before hosting Northeastern Saturday in the series finale.
Jeff Cox covers college, junior and high school hockey, NCAA recruiting and NHL Draft prospects. Follow him on Twitter @JeffCoxSports.