After a 15-day layoff, UConn men’s hockey will get back on the ice to open its quarterfinal series against No. 20 Boston University on Friday at Agganis Arena.
After spending their first three years in Hockey East battling for a top-eight spot (for home ice in the opening round) and being successful just once, the Huskies found themselves fighting for a top-four spot to host the quarterfinal round and the bye that comes with it.
While the Huskies were unsuccessful in their quest to stay home, UConn still earned a bye in the new 11-team format by finishing fifth, marking a program high and allowing the players some time to get healthy and develop.
“This week off gave us the time to rest and prepare better,” Alexander Payusov said.
Rest is important for players like goaltender Adam Huska, who has missed almost two months with a left wrist injury, and Justin Howell, who crashed hard into the boards on Jan. 5 and suffered a lower-body injury. Both are healthy according to head coach Mike Cavanaugh and are eligible to dress this weekend.
The same cannot be said for the Terriers. Patrick Harper (8-13—21) played in just 20 games this year and it was announced on Feb. 24 after their season finale against Vermont that he would miss the remainder of the season with an illness. He had not taken the ice since Jan. 6 and had two assists in two games against the Huskies.
However, head coach David Quinn does now have Jordan Greenway (10-17—27) at his disposal. The 6-foot-5, 238-pound forward missed Feb. 16’s overtime thriller that evened the series between the two teams at 1-1-1 because he was one of four college players selected to represent the United States at the Olympics.
“They’re really strong up front,” Cavanaugh said. “It’s not just Greenway and Bobo Carpenter.”
Greenway leads one of the best lines in the nation. He and his center, Shane Bowers (16-11—27) are both potential first-round picks while Brady Tkachuk (7-19—26) is projected to be an early selection in June’s NHL Entry Draft as well. On their other top line, Carpenter (18-12—30) has torched UConn this year, scoring six goals in three games and leads the team in scoring.
Despite the hosts’ offensive talent, in each of the teams’ three matchups this year, it was special teams that proved the most important aspect of the game and the Huskies expect nothing to change this weekend.
“Special teams will be huge this weekend,” Spencer Naas, who has scored a point in eight straight games, said. “Any time you get into a playoff series, special teams can make the difference.”
In the initial matchup on Oct. 20, all four goals in a 2-2 tie were scored on special teams, two short-handed tallies for then-No. 7 Boston University and two power-play goals for UConn. The following day, the Terriers finished 3-for-4 with the man advantage and were able to take a 6-3 win.
The Huskies tied the series in February when they finished 2-for-4 on the power play on just two shots, using late Terrier penalties to hoist themselves back into the game and force overtime.
That matchup of UConn’s power play against Boston University’s penalty kill will be crucial for the Huskies to take advantage of. While they can be streaky while up a man, they convert on 20.3 percent of their opportunities, good for 23rd in the nation. The Terriers kill 78 percent of their penalties, which is 47th out of 60 teams.
In a small sample size, the Huskies are 5-for-12 with an extra man against the Terriers this year.
UConn and Boston University begin their series on Friday at 7:30 p.m., with Game 2 coming Saturday at 7 p.m. and Game 3 at 5 p.m. on Sunday if necessary.