After Bruce Marshall took a leave of absence in November 2012 and resigned the following January, UConn began looking for a new head coach for its men’s hockey program. This new hire would lead the program from Atlantic Hockey to the Hockey East Association, roughly equivalent to moving from the Sun Belt to the SEC in football.
The three finalists for the position were interim head coach David Berard, former Denver coach George Gwozdecky and Boston College associate head coach Mike Cavanaugh. Gwozdecky took himself out of the running but said in an interview with the Hartford Courant that UConn would be raising banners in five years.
This year is year five with Cavanaugh at the helm and while they are not poised to raise anything new to the rafters at the XL Center this year, he has taken the Huskies from getting swept by Robert Morris at home in the Atlantic Hockey quarterfinals to a first-round bye in an ultra-competitive conference.
“We’re trying to grow the program and it shows that Coach Cav is working,” Tanner Creel said.
Cavanaugh was always been able to do more with his guys that were recruited to play against the likes of Mercyhurst and Canisius, not Boston College and Boston University.
They have yet to finish below ninth in Hockey East and in UConn’s first three seasons, they were in competition to host a first-round series until the final day of the regular season, coming away with a hosting spot in 2015-16.
Through much of their first years in the league, the Huskies won games by “parking the ice bus” and alternating close wins with occasional blowouts.
This year, a shift in offensive strategy finally took hold. Their conference goal differential had always been negative, decreasing from -32 to -21 to -6 in the previous three seasons. It was +8 this season.
“We’ve been trying to bring this program to the next level and it’s nice to see improvement every year,” senior Spencer Naas said.
The biggest evidence of change in the program is the limiting of blowouts. Every team has off nights, but being able to stop the bleeding and keep the score respectable is a symbol of resilience as well as a baseline of talent.
In the Huskies’ first year in the conference, two teams ran roughshod over them. Six days apart in February 2015, No. 13 Providence took down the Huskies 10-1, followed by Northeastern handing them a 9-0 beating at Matthews Arena. In 2015-16, Notre Dame beat UConn 8-2 at a neutral site and in 2016-17, the team lost by four goals three times.
This year, no team beat the Huskies by more than three goals in conference play; they had a six-goal win of their own, scoring eight goals against UMass and won in both Schneider Arena and Matthews Arena, the buildings where those nine-goal defeats took place.
On Feb. 16, UConn was down 3-1 to then-No. 20 Boston University after 40 minutes and was not playing very inspiring hockey. They scored an early goal but 17 seconds later, Ty Amonte restored the Terriers’ two-score advantage. Despite this, the Huskies scored two late goals and on Maxim Letunov’s overtime winner, won their seventh straight game, including four against ranked opponents.
“We have a lot of resiliency in this group,” Creel said. “It’s inspiring to see the growth there.”
All of those factors led to the best conference record (11-12-1) since UConn joined Hockey East and a fifth-place finish, after never placing higher than eighth.
“It’s special to come into a program that hasn’t really been super developed coming into a league where the top four teams are powerhouses and now we have a first-round bye,” Johnny Austin said. “It’s awesome.”
This year’s team will be known as one that made a leap forward for the program. They had the best regular season the Huskies have ever had and even own a winning record against ranked opponents (6-4-2).
For the team, the focus is now on having a postseason to remember after three consecutive ones to forget, on the wrong end of opening round sweeps. The Huskies will be taking on No. 20 Boston University on the road in a best-of-three series.
“Our team’s completely different than last year and previous years,” Austin said. “We really come together as a unit and [the losses are] in our head a little bit, but I don’t think it’ll affect us.”