Last season, UConn Men’s Hockey finished eighth in Hockey East and hosted a first-round playoff series in just its second year as members of the premier conference in college hockey.
This year the Huskies were unable to make the top eight, finishing the regular season ninth in the standings. While it may seem like a step back, the way games have gone down proves that is not the case.
Across a 36-game regular season in 2015-16, UConn went 11-21-4, 6-12-4 in conference play. This year, that record is 12-14-8 with a Hockey East record of 8-10-4. The Huskies had 16 points last year in conference play, and this year’s squad hit that total with three weekends to go.
This season, the team tied games that would have been multiple goal losses in the past. Even when those earlier teams did win, they used a very distinct, defense-heavy strategy which bore the program’s well-loved moniker.
Once upon a time, UConn was playing its first-ever Hockey East game against Merrimack. The Huskies scored with 29 seconds left in a first period which they had nine shots. They got nine pucks on net the rest of the game while Rob Nichols faced 43 shots on the night, saving 41 of them.
The strategy, called “parking the bus” in soccer, was cleverly adapted by our friends on Twitter and a legend was born.
uconn hockey really parking the ice bus since scoring their goal. #icebus— We take the stairs (@NoEscalators) October 19, 2014
They would be out-shot by a large margin and win games, or in this particular case, lose in overtime after Merrimack tied the game in the final minute. It was a sound strategy for a roster making the leap from Atlantic Hockey.
Over two seasons since, however, Mike Cavanaugh’s Huskies have evolved their style.
Instead of giving up 88 shots on goal in a weekend and forcing Rob Nichols to stand on his head night in and night out, the Huskies now have the ability to have shots and puck possession in their favor, as shown by Saturday night’s win over New Hampshire, where UConn out-shot the Wildcats by a healthy 38-to-16 margin.
While it may not have improved in the standings, the program is progressing. After completing the hockey equivalent of moving from Conference USA to the SEC, the Huskies are beating ranked teams and it isn’t by dumb luck or parking the bus.
In December, they took three of the available four points against UMass Lowell. The River Hawks were ranked No. 4 at the time and UConn out-skated them in their own building.
The same occurred at the XL Center against No. 11 Vermont. The Huskies kept Vermont to the perimeter of the offensive zone and didn’t let them set up and get good shots. The Huskies put up a strong performance in the 3-1 win.
Even in losses, UConn has shown that it can dictate the tempo against some of the top teams in the country.
In January, when the Huskies headed to Chestnut Hill to play the No. 13 Boston College Eagles, UConn allowed two early goals, one on the rush and one off of a face-off where Rob Nichols was well-screened. Those were the only chances the Eagles had all night.
UConn out-shot Boston College 43-to-26. Instead of Nichols it was goaltender Joe Woll needing to make save after save in the 2-1 UConn loss.
The future remains bright for UConn hockey. The real goal is not to host a Hockey East Tournament series, it’s to win a series and someday earn a bid for the NCAA Tournament. Those goals are still in sight for a team that is still quite young.