If you haven't been following, and you just look at their record (2-4-3), the UConn Men's Hockey team's performance so far this season doesn't really stand out. You may have heard about a win against Boston College, the Huskies finished up their week with another impressive result, tying Boston University 4-4.
Expectations were low for UConn Hockey going into the season, mostly because nobody knew how this team would adjust to playing in Hockey East. Most pre-season polls had UConn last or next-to-last in the conference. However, after seeing the improvement made over the season and recent success it's hard not to be excited by the possibilities for this season given the Huskies' proven ability to contend against some of the best teams in the country.
Last year, Mike Cavanaugh's first as head coach, the Huskies outperformed expectations with a third place finish in Atlantic Hockey; this year they have already surpassed any reasonable fan's hopes by defeating two highly ranked teams and competing well against the likes of Yale, Vermont and Boston University.
What I'm trying to say is, if you haven't gotten on the #ICEBUS yet, there are plenty of seats available. According to Will Moran, the voice of UConn Hockey on WHUS, "There isn't a better ticket in the state than UConn Hockey," hard to argue when you factor the affordability, relatively short game length and the entertainment of live hockey.
Last Wednesday, in front of over 8,000 screaming fans at the XL Center, UConn hosted the national powerhouse from Boston College. Despite being outshot, and losing the face-off battle against the No. 3 Golden Eagles, the Huskies scored a power play goal in the first period that ended up being the difference in a 1-0 victory. Husky defenders blocked 15 shots in that game and are among the best in the country at keeping shots off the net-- leading Hockey East with 19.11 blocks per game. You've got to love a team with the heart to lay their bodies on the line like that.
"UConn had a great night defensively," said WHUS Sports' Alex Giner about the win, "there had been an issue with UConn allowing a lot of shots early in the season. Starting with the Vermont game, it began going down."
Moran agreed that the team defense was most impressive, "The discipline of Connecticut to not get caught-- Boston College didn't have any odd-man opportunities of note in that game and that's something they really feed on, Connecticut played one of it's most mistake free hockey games of the season."
The Huskies followed up the BC game with an impressive 4-4 tie on the road against No. 5 Boston University. Down 4-3 late in the third period, UConn drew a holding penalty after concurrent penalties to force a 4-on-3 power play. With the man advantage, Kasperi Ojantakenen fired a shot at net which the goalie deflected but Shawn Pauly was there to put in the rebound for his second goal of the night. After a scoreless overtime, the final result was a tie. The Terriers have since moved up to third in the national rankings after beating BC and then tying the mighty Huskies.
Speaking of the rankings, we got a vote in the USCHO Top 20 this week!! #progress #ICEBUS
Any team in the country would be happy to come out of this past week with 3 out of a possible 4 points the way UConn did. At the risk of reacting too strongly, it is now reasonable to believe that UConn could, maybe, host the first round of the Hockey East Tournament (in the new format, they would need to finish 8th. Right now they are 7th), or even make the Quarterfinals with a win in that round- how incredible would that be? The way this team has been playing, it isn't out of the question.
This was a team picked by most to finish last in Hockey East, nobody would have ever predicted they would beat multiple ranked teams and act like they belong against others. Like all well-coached college teams, they are getting better with every game.
"In the eyes of the people who are a part of this program, there wasn't any expectation they would finish last," said Moran, "The pre-season expectations were based on what UConn was, not what they are. Look at the helm and you see a 4-time national champion (coach Cavanaugh), and you've got (assistant) Mike Souza, one of the best young coaches in college hockey, and you can say the same for Joe Pereria." He continued, "This is a team with great talent, great coaches and great leadership, I think there's a real chance they finish much higher than projected."
Imagine where they could be in a few years.
The XL Center was LOUD for the Hockey East opener against BC, hopefully they can keep it up when UConn hosts Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute on November 18th. I know the RPI Engineers aren't a sexy name, but they are a good hockey team- with two wins this year over the defending national champions from Union and win over Notre Dame. Hopefully there isn't a letdown after such a hectic week.
"It was an emotionally draining week" Cavanaugh said on his weekly conference call, "you look back to Sunday night we played Yale. That was an emotional and hard-fought game." After that they barely had time for practice before the BC game and then had to fit in travel and practice before a game at BU, "by Sunday I was exhausted, it was a long week, but we're recharging the batteries."
Coach Mike Cavanaugh is aware of the team's need to stay focused despite some recent success, "you get in trouble when you start creating expectations for a season... we really break it down by the next opponent" The Huskies play Sacred Heart, a former in-state Atlantic Hockey foe, at the Taft School in Watertown, Connecticut tonight.
In fact, it is important to maintain perspective on just how far this program has come. The foundation for the success we are seeing right now came from former head coach Bruce Marshall and the teams from 2010-2014 which helped turn around the culture of the program.
"Going back to '09, UConn hockey was in the basement of not just Atlantic Hockey, but NCAA Hockey as a whole," said Giner, "Players like Brant Harris, Billy Latta, Matt Grogan and Jordan Sims, these players helped contribute to UConn's success and getting the program back on the right track, and it really shone in 2012 when UConn got that invite from Hockey East"
Moran continued, "We think it's a little under-appreciated... just how much this past generation of players, not only were they great players, but they helped change the culture of Connecticut... they laid a foundation." Moran wrote a great piece about that senior class after last season.
Another reason for UConn's success has been the emergence of freshman Kasperi Ojantakanen. He was suspended for the first four games of the season, but since joining the team in the Vermont game he has been an exciting two-way player. I asked Will Moran what Ojantakanen has brought to the table since joining the team:
"He has a tremendous skill level, both on the offensive and the defensive side...he's a facilitator, able to create some offense and he plays in all situations. So he's been a penalty killer, has been a member of the power play unit, and he's been a welcome addition to the top line, which is maybe Connecticut's best line with Corey Ronin and Partick Kirtland...
For Kasperi to come in and really adjust to the North American style of play-- playing in a smaller rink, a different type of game than you would see in Europe, and really coming over here and adjusting to life at a new school and learning and retaining what Coach Cavanaugh and his staff want him to be, he's done a really good job.
He also wins a ton of draws, he's an exceptional face-off guy, probably the best that Connecticut has on the face-off dot along with Shawn Pauly."
Moran also noted that a few games earlier in the season UConn had lost the face-off battle, particularly the first game against Merrimack, perhaps things would have been different if Ojantankanen had been there.
Coach Cavanaugh also offered praise for the freshman's contribution to the team, comparing him to an NHL player that many of our readers (the Boston fans) should be familiar with, "both of my assistants saw him play in Finland last year, the best analogy they could give me was that he plays very similar to Patrice Bergeron- really good at all facets of the game, and they could not have been more correct in their assessment."
Cavanaugh also pointed out that the Kasperi-led top line faced BU's Jack Eichel line (Eichel is touted as the next great American hockey player, and is likely to be a Top-3 pick in the NHL Draft next year), which opened the door for second linemates Shawn Pauly and Trevor Gerling to score two goals each.
There is no doubt this team is performing much better since the Vermont game, part of that has been defensive improvement, but another part has to be the comprehensive contributions of this dynamic freshman.