PRESCOTT VALLEY – The University of Connecticut captured the 2016 Desert Hockey Classic championship on Saturday, Dec. 31, defeating Brown University, 4-1, to ring in the new year.
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At Prescott Valley Event Center, the Huskies came from behind in the second period to grab a 2-1 lead and added a pair of insurance goals in the third to claim the title trophy.
UConn finished third in the inaugural Desert Classic last year in Glendale. The Huskies caught Brown at the right time. The Bears edged tournament host Arizona State, 9-8, in double overtime Friday night, although the game went into the NCAA record books as a tie.
“We’re very excited,” Huskies coach Mike Cavanaugh said of winning the Classic. “Brown gave us all we could handle, for sure. We probably had a little more energy [than Brown] because of that [late 2OT game].”
The Huskies improved their record to 8-6-6 overall, while the Bears dropped to 3-10-1 as the second half of NCAA Division I ice hockey’s 2016-17 season commences.
Afterward, Brown freshman defenseman Zach Giuttari garnered his team’s MVP trophy, while UConn senior goalie Rob Nichols picked up his squad’s MVP trophy.
Nichols preserved a 4-3 victory over No. 18-ranked St. Cloud State with a last-second save in Friday’s opening round. It’s been a while since the Huskies have succeeded on the ice.
“I think this is the first time since my freshman year we’ve been above .500 [with our record],” Nichols said. “It’s pretty exciting. And it kind of shows what we want to do the rest of the semester and the year – and try to head in the same direction and keep it rolling.”
Nichols played in place of regular starting net minder Adam Huska, who was competing at the International Ice Hockey Federation (IIHF) Junior Worlds in Toronto.
“We were good at closing time and space in our end and making sure we kept them to the perimeter and not give them any second chances,” Nichols said of UConn’s defensive effort against Brown.
UConn had not won a tournament trophy since 2003, a fact not lost on Cavanaugh. The Huskies also played without team leading scorer Tage Thompson, who suited up for Junior Worlds, too.
“Four years ago when I took the job [at UConn], I said I had three goals – and one was to graduate players, make them better men and win trophies,” Cavanaugh said. “And this is the first one, so I’m really happy for that group in there [locker room]. Our guys battled hard.”
On Saturday, UConn carried a 2-1 lead into the third period and scored an insurance goal about 7-1/2 minutes into the frame. Benjamin Freeman extended the Huskies’ edge to 3-1 on a power play goal via Maxim Letunov and Brian Morgan.
At the 1:05 mark of the third, UConn junior forward Corey Ronin tallied an exclamation mark, draining an empty-net goal with Brown on the ropes.
The Huskies trailed 1-0 after the first period. But with 17:48 remaining in the second period, the tide turned to UConn for good. Forward Spencer Naas stole the puck near center ice and drilled home the equalizer for his 10th goal of the season.
Some 8 minutes later, sophomore forward Max Kalter gave UConn its first lead, 2-1, on assists from Naas and Kasperi Ojantakanen. Kalter’s goal came when he knocked in a loose puck next to the Brown net mere seconds after a Huskies power play ended. “After the first one [goal], we felt the change in momentum,” Kalter said. “The whole second period we were flying. The bench energy was great. We were buzzing.”
UConn outshot Brown, 18-6, in the second period, which continued a trend from the opening frame.
In the first period, however, Brown grabbed its 1-0 lead with 6:13 to go on a goal from junior right wing Tyler Bird in a 4-on-4 situation. Brady Schoo registered the assist.
UConn trailed at the first intermission despite outshooting Brown, 17-7. Brown goalie Gavin Nieto made 16 saves in the opening frame alone.
“He played great, and I’m glad that he responded [a day after surrendering eight goals to ASU],” Brown coach Brendan Whittet said of Nieto. “He gave us an opportunity to be in that game.”
As Kalter headed back to the UConn locker room, he mentioned that his team played extra hard for Huskies associate strength and conditioning coach Maureen Butler. She didn’t make the trip to Prescott Valley following a recent throat cancer diagnosis.
“This win was definitely for her,” Kalter added. “She does all the work [for our conditioning] and she helps us a lot.”
(18) St. Cloud State 4, Arizona State 2
PRESCOTT VALLEY – NCAA Division I No. 18-ranked St. Cloud State (Minnesota) defeated Arizona State’s ice hockey team, 4-2, in the consolation game of the Desert Hockey Classic Saturday night, Dec. 31, at PV Event Center.
As a result, the Huskies placed third in the tournament. ASU’s record dipped to 7-14-1 overall, while St. Cloud inched above .500 at 9-8-1.
The Sun Devils trailed St. Cloud State 3-0 through two periods before attempting a comeback that fell just short in the final period.
St. Cloud’s Robby Jackson registered a hat trick with three goals, including an even-strength tally in the first period and two short-handed scores. Nick Poehling added two assists.
Jackson handed the Huskies a 3-0 lead in the second period. He notched an empty-netter in the third period that resulted in the 4-2 final.
ASU did not get on the board until Tyler Busch and Steenn Pasichnuk tallied on back-to-back goals earlier in the third, making the game interesting until the final minutes.
Follow Doug Cook on Twitter @dougout_dc. Reach him at 928-445-3333 ext. 2039, or 928-642-7865.