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UConn Men's Hockey: Huskies Looking to Host Hockey East Opening Series

With an opportunity to secure a home series in the Hockey East Tournament last year, UConn collapsed. Can Mike Cavanaugh's squad make it happen this year?

Ian Bethune

A clear line of demarcation has formed in Hockey East.

The same schools which finished in the top five at the end of last season have again separated themselves from the other seven teams. UMass-Lowell, Notre Dame, and Boston College all have double-digit leads over sixth place Vermont. Providence and Boston University have a five-point lead over the Catamounts. However, the Friars have two games in hand and the Terriers are comfortably moving along with a 4-1-1 record in their last six conference games.

Beneath this Hockey East version of the power five, there are seven teams separated by six points fighting for three slots to have home ice in the first round of the conference tournament. It is a battle that will surely come down to the final weekend of the season.

One of Mike Cavanaugh's goals for season two in Hockey East was to host a first-round series. With seven league games remaining and the team sitting in seventh place, the Huskies control their own destiny.

Last year, the final stretch of the season put a damper on a solid inaugural season in Hockey East as the Huskies ran out of energy. With the opportunity to host a first-round series, UConn was swept by Northeastern and UNH by a combined score of 24-3 before finishing with a win against UMass.

Can UConn avoid a similar fate this year?

The 2015-16 season concludes with a road game against Merrimack followed by home-and-away series with No. 3 Providence, Northeastern, and New Hampshire. Points against the Friars will be hard to come by, but UConn will need to step up against the other two.

The hottest team in the league, aside from Notre Dame, is Northeastern. The other Huskies had a horrendous start to the season, winning one game in their first 14 and starting Hockey East play 0-8-3. Lately, however, things have improved dramatically. The team has a 7-0-1 record in its last eight games, including 4-0-0 in league play. Last weekend, captain Kevin Roy returned from an injury which sidelined him for 12 games.

With a team averaging 4.3 goals scored in its last six games and looking at a favorable upcoming schedule, Northeastern seems on their way to solidifying a first-round home playoff series. The Huskies close out their season with series against UMass, UConn, and Maine.

Vermont has underachieved to this point in the season. Some predicted the Catamounts had a chance to break into the top five of the conference, but the team has struggled against the top five in the league, going 1-5-0, while also being swept by Maine.

Still, Vermont finds themselves sixth but is looking at a difficult remaining schedule. After a bye this week, they play host to Notre Dame, a team without a loss in 12 games. The Catamounts finish the season with series against UNH, Boston College, and Merrimack. Although, their series with the Fighting Irish and the Eagles are at home, they are only 1-4-2 in Hockey East games at Gutterson Field House this season.

After starting the season 6-1-4, Merrimack has fallen apart. The Warriors have one win since November 13th and have gone a shocking 1-12-3 overall during that time. In spite of that, Merrimack still finds itself ninth in Hockey East and just three points out of sixth. Additionally, the Warriors do not have an unbelievably tough closing schedule. Other than hosting a contest with BU and two with BC, the Warriors play UConn and Vermont at Lawler Rink and are on the road against Maine. If they can get things turned around, they have a solid chance of collecting points in five out of their final eight games.

If Merrimack does not think it can get any worse, they only have to look to in-state rival UMass to find out it can. The Minutemen are losers of six straight and only have one win since sweeping UConn the first weekend of November. Since November 7th, UMass has compiled a 1-13-3 record in its last 17 games.

As bleak as it looks for the Minutemen today, with last-place Maine heading to Amherst for a pair of games this weekend they could gain some ground and get right back in the hunt. The problem is after the Maine series, the Minutemen finish with arguably the toughest schedule of any Hockey East school. UMass finishes with one against BU, two against Northeastern, one against UMass-Lowell, and finish with a pair against the Friars. UMass could be as high as sixth on Sunday but have a bear of a schedule to close the season and try to hold on to that spot.

Maine comes into their weekend series with UMass struggling mightily. Outside of a four-game win streak against Vermont and Princeton, Maine has managed just a single win in 22 games. The Black Bears sit in the cellar of Hockey East with only six points. The team closes with 10 straight Hockey East contests, with six being played against Providence, Northeastern, and Notre Dame. The other four are against UMass and Merrimack. In another down year for a once proud program, it seems as though it will be difficult for the Black Bears to finish any higher than eleventh.

Just like in the 2014-2015 season, the race between UConn and New Hampshire has a good chance of deciding who hosts a first round series.

At the moment, UNH is struggling. Losers of five straight in Hockey East, and six straight overall, the Wildcats find themselves tenth in the conference after starting 2-1-4. The schedule makers have not made it easy for UNH to come out of their funk, either. UNH has 10 conference games remaining with six against top five teams, including their next four, all on the road. If the Wildcats can stay within shouting distance of UConn, the final weekend series between the two will carry a lot of intrigue. Not to mention, former UConn assistant Mike Souza, currently head coach at UNH, facing his old team for the first time.

With so many teams currently struggling at the bottom of Hockey East, UConn has a solid opportunity to seize a place in the top eight.

A couple of questions remain. First, with a team so reliant on the offense supplied by their freshmen, will the rest of the team be able to pick up the offensive slack if the freshmen tail off? Second, can the Huskies maintain a solid and consistent level of play across the end of the season?

UConn currently sits at seventh but it will be their ability to withstand the final seven conference games that will determine their fate. Last year, it proved to be too much. Hopefully, this year's upperclassmen have learned from that experience and can help lead this team to another program milestone.