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- Salminen's Michigan goal sparks UConn past Sacred Heart in CT Ice
Salminen's Michigan goal sparks UConn past Sacred Heart in CT Ice
The sophomore forward opened the scoring with a wondergoal en route to a 6-2 victory.
Photo: Ian Bethune
Entering Friday night, Samu Salminen found himself in a slump. He hadn’t scored in 11 games dating back over two months. He had just two assists over the previous 10 games — and both of those came in a single contest.
As the coaching staff worked to get him back on track, they pushed the same message: Just keep it simple.
So naturally, Salminen made one of the toughest skill plays in hockey to break out of the drought by scoring a Michigan goal in UConn’s 6-2 win over Sacred Heart in the first round of CT Ice on Friday.
“How it happened today, I was sort of laughing on the bench like, ‘Okay, that wasn't what I expect when you're struggling to score goals,’” he said afterwards.
While the move has become more common over the last few years, it’s still rare. No UConn player has done it in the Hockey East Era and it’d a surprise if it happened at any point before that, either. Even Salminen had never pulled it off previously himself — at least not on the ice.
“I played roller hockey a lot when I was young,” he said. “It's kind of a different thing. It's easier in that.”
Yet Salminen pulled it out of his back pocket just 3:35 in. Jake Black sent the puck behind the net from the corner, where Salminen won a battle and found himself all alone.
“He created some space where he had that space to make that play,” Sacred Heart coach CJ Marottolo said. “He beat our guy off the wall down low.”
At that point, instincts took over.
“You don't really, at the moment, think about it. You just do it,” he explained.
WE HAVE A MICHIGAN GOAL IN CT‼️
Hello Samu Salminen🔥🔥
@hockey_east | @NCAAIceHockey
— UConn Men's Hockey (@UConnMHOC)
Jan 26, 2024
When the puck went in, Salminen sent both the Huskies’ bench and the XL Center crowd into a frenzy. The only one in the building wearing UConn gear that wasn’t losing their mind? Head coach Mike Cavanaugh.
“I saw the whole bench going bananas and holding their heads and I'm like, ‘We have a long way to go,’” he said. “It doesn't matter whether you score like that or whether it goes in off a skate. It's a goal, we have 55 minutes to play here.”
As it turned out, the coach had a right to be concerned. 1:01 later, Sacred Heart tied the game with its opening goal. While it wasn’t a Michigan, it counted all the same.
“Sure enough, they came right back down and made it 1-1,” Cavanaugh said.
“I think [Salminen’s goal] might give us a little ‘let's go’ but it's also might be a little bit too much of a ‘let's go,’” Hudson Schandor said. “Something we've been preaching lately is trying to avoid these valleys and mountains of emotions and just try to stay even keel — I think that one might have got the best of us.”
It eventually worked out, it just took some time to get there. Schandor scored two unanswered goals to put UConn up 3-1 at the first intermission. When Sacred Heart pulled one back less than three minutes into the second period, the Huskies responded with two unanswered goals in the second and sealed it with an empty-netter in the third to advance to the CT Ice final for the third consecutive year.
“Looking forward to playing in front of a big house tomorrow night,” Cavanaugh said.
Yet behind the glamour of Salminen’s goal and the lopsided scoreline, the coach wasn’t overly thrilled with his team’s performance. UConn got out-shot 38-21, took four penalties and had a few sloppy moments.
“I'm not sure it was necessarily our best game that we've played all year long,” Cavanaugh said. “I thought we were a little undisciplined through the neutral zone and gave them some odd man rushes. They got some good chances off of that… There's a couple of penalties we took that I thought were very unnecessary.”
Luckily, the Huskies’ penalty kill bailed them out. They had a 3/3 day behind two in the first period after UConn went up 3-1 and a crucial major kill that carried over from the end of the second period into the third.
The latter could’ve gotten Sacred Heart right back in the game if it went differently. Unlike minor penalties, majors aren’t wiped out following a power play goal so while the Huskies held a 5-2 lead, a bad couple of minutes could’ve pulled the Pioneers within one goal — or even closer.
Instead, the PK unit held strong.
“We were able to keep them on the perimeter. I didn't think they were able to get much to the house,” Cavanaugh said about the penalty kill. “We did a nice job when we went down ice to disrupt their entries. Then we really did a good job of eliminating any type of second and third chance opportunities.”
That’s the X’s and O’s explanation. Schandor put it a different way.
“It's a commitment to relentless pursuit of what we do as a club on the penalty kill,” he said. “John Spetz does an unbelievable job for us before we go for a kill about setting all of our minds in the right idea. I feel like in the past it might have been like, ‘Oh, we took a penalty.’ Like, ‘Dang.’ But now it's almost instantaneous, you can look down the bench and see John or if John's not doing it, myself, like ‘Let's go. We're getting a kill,’ instead of ‘We have a penalty.’”
UConn got some help from Sacred Heart during the major kill, too. The Pioneers took an interference penalty, which wiped out two minutes. By the time that expired, the Huskies only had 1:26 left and finished it off with ease.
Once UConn got back to even strength, it melted the rest of the clock down on the game without much issue. Ryan Tattle notched an empty netter to make it a 6-2 scoreline, which became the final.
The Huskies will head to the championship game for the third straight year, where they’ll meet Quinnipiac for the third straight year. UConn opened the tournament with flare thanks to Salminen’s goal. Now, it’ll try to finish it with some revenge by avoid a third-straight defeat.
“They've got the best of us the last few times,” Schandor said. “Us older guys, we really want this tomorrow.”