Last season, there was a change in the UConn men’s hockey team. Some of it was outward, such as the seven-game win streak and first round bye in the Hockey East Tournament. But more importantly, the culture inside the program changed.
The Huskies are no longer the scrappy underdogs of Hockey East. They aren’t satisfied with just stealing a win against a ranked team during a weekend. They aren’t hoping to run into success anymore.
They’re expecting it.
“We have a mentality now that we expect to win,” head coach Mike Cavanaugh said. “It doesn’t matter who’s coming in. We open up at Army and that’s who we’re focused on. We’re going to prepare to go down there and expect to win that game. Now whether we win the game or not is whether we execute and whether we out work them and out play them.
Part of that has to do with the experience of playing in Hockey East for five seasons. But the Huskies’ talent level has also improved every season. On the ice, the team is good enough to compete with anybody they face.
“We’re not going into the game thinking we need 60 saves and some luck to win the game and I don’t think that’s going to be for any of our opponents,” Cavanaugh said. “It doesn’t matter whether you’re a freshman or a senior, that’s more of a program attitude, a culture you have where you believe you’re going to go in and expect to win a hockey game.”
Talk of a culture change only goes so far. But even though the season has yet to begin, the team has shown plenty of commitment over the offseason. All but one player — including the incoming freshmen — spent part of the summer on-campus working out and taking classes. Once they returned for the fall, everybody passed the conditioning test, a first in Cavanaugh’s tenure.
“We set the expectation this summer, that shows me they’re committed,” senior captain Miles Gendron said. “They all wanted to come in the summer.”
The team’s mettle will certainly be tested early on, with 11 of the first 15 games — including the first four — coming on the road. But with 12 new freshman, opportunity to have everyone in one place and bond is valuable at the start of the season.
“I like getting out on the road,” Cavanaugh said. “There’s the old adage that the team grows and gets a little closer on the road. You learn a lot about yourself as a program how you react to an opposing crowd. Can you block out the distractions and focus on the task at hand?”
And for all the games the Huskies will be on the road early in the season, they will be home to finish out the season, where every game could have postseason implications.
UConn understands this year is different. Not only do they expect to win, so does the fanbase now. Finishing above .500 is now a goal, not a hope. Making the Hockey East playoffs is the baseline. Now, can they win some games in the postseason?
Those questions will have to be answered later. For now, Cavanaugh only has one team circled on his calendar.
“Army,” Cavanaugh said. “That’s the one.”