UConn Men's Hockey delivered an incredible performance this past weekend to clinch eighth place in Hockey East. That fact alone is impressive, as most writers and analysts in the college hockey community predicted rough seas for Mike Cavanaugh's squad as they transitioned from Atlantic Hockey- a solid conference in its own right which UConn was never particularly great in.
The accomplishment also carries significance because UConn will be hosting its first-round series in the Hockey East Tournament this weekend against Vermont at the XL Center.
"We haven't played tremendously well at home this year," senior captain Patrick Kirtland explained after the big road win at UNH. "So we're just happy to get back there and give our fans another two games."
In two previous games against Vermont this season, one at home and one on the road, UConn has fallen at the hands of the Catamounts, though both were tightly contested.
The Huskies have a lot working in their favor this weekend, however. Early indications are that ticket sales are going well and we should expect the most lively crowd at XL this season, where things can get pretty turnt.
UConn has also benefitted from the return of a few key players from injury.
Sophomore forward Corey Ronan, who missed eight games before returning for the New Hampshire series, has injected some speed and playmaking ability to the lineup. The Franklin, Mass. native has two goals in as many games and both were important ones.
The first goal came on a brilliant shorthanded effort, skating around a defender and flipping one past UNH goalie Danny Tirone to get UConn on the board first in the opening period of an eventual 4-1 win.
The next night, at New Hampshire's Whittemore Center, Ronan scored the game-winning goal in overtime to complete an incredible comeback for UConn and clinch the postseason home series.
"The kid just flies," senior forward Joey Ferris said. "No one can keep up with him when his legs get going. His energy he brings to our team, it's something that you can't really teach."
Ferris scored the game-tying goal at UNH, and his fourth line with Max Kalter and Karl El-Mir earned great praise from Cavanaugh for its performance across the past few games.
"They've been a pleasant surprise lately," Cavanaugh said in the post-game press conference. "Started as a 4th line, played so well the first night against Northeastern that we started them in that second game and they were even better that night. That's why they're starting games for us now."
To be getting strong play from the top to the bottom of the lineup is a great sign for the Huskies. The all-freshmen top line featuring Max Letunov, Tage Thompson and Marco Richter has been a consistent force, with Letunov and Thompson top-two on the team in goals, assists and points.
Spencer Naas and Kasperi Ojantakanen, who recently returned from an injury as well and has been pretty great in face-offs, have been rocking the third line with Ronan. Naas scored the Huskies' second goal in the third period at New Hampshire to get UConn within one goal with just under ten minutes left. He was UConn's leading goal-scorer last year with 13.
Patrick Kirtland has been a steady producer on a steadily productive second line with classmate Shawn Pauly and junior Evan Richardson, a transfer from BC. Kirtland has seen the program reach great heights since his first days in Storrs and sees brighter days ahead.
"Every year more talent comes in, just to see where it was when we got here and see where it is when we're leaving, it's been special to be a part of," he said. "The program's heading in the right direction."
Tickets are on sale for the series this weekend, which will kick off on Friday night at 7:05 p.m. for Game 1 with Game 2 scheduled for the same time on Saturday. Game 3 (if necessary) will take place at 5:05 p.m. on Sunday.