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UConn men’s hockey: 5 questions facing the Huskies entering the season

Keys to the season for head coach Mike Cavanaugh and the Huskies.

Ian Bethune/The UConn Blog

After a 2017-18 season in which UConn men’s hockey won seven games in a row and finished fifth in Hockey East, it felt like the program turned a page. No longer was it a plucky underdog that was happy to be there. No, it turned into a real hockey program with real expectations.

But last season showed the path to Hockey East success is not always linear. It was a rebuilding year, but that’s what happens when the best senior class in program history gets replaced by 12 freshmen.

This year, even with everyone a year older and another talented freshman class, UConn is still probably a year away from really breaking through. But we’ll want to see improvement this year.

It’s time for all the progress off the ice — a new rink on the way, highly-rated recruits — to start to show on the ice. That doesn’t mean winning Hockey East but it means no more 7-1 blowouts to Providence. It means fighting to host a playoff game. UConn will get a chance to prove that starting Saturday night when it begins the 2019-20 season at Sacred Heart.

With a new season upon us, here are the five biggest questions facing the #icebus ahead of the first puck drop:

Can the Huskies build on the success at the end of last season?

In the final eight games of the season, UConn went 5-3, good for 1.25 points per game. Stretch that out to a full 24-game Hockey East slate and the Huskies would’ve finished with 30 points — good for fourth place.

Realistically, UConn is still a year away from competing for a top spot in Hockey East. But those final eight games showed the Huskies have the talent to compete with anyone in the conference and win because they’re simply a better team — not because they get lucky.

UConn was picked to finish ninth this season — the same spot it finished last season. Considering the talent returning for the Huskies on every level, it would be a shock for them to finish outside the playoffs (top eight).

So what’s a more realistic goal? Somewhere in the range of fourth to sixth. If this team progresses quicker than expected, it’s not out of the question for UConn to host a playoffs series. But if it takes some time for the Huskies to get going, then they’ll be looking around the sixth spot.

How big of a jump will the sophomores make?

According to head coach Mike Cavanaugh:

“I think the biggest jump guys make is from their freshman to sophomore year,” he said. “When you come back (as a sophomore), you feel so much more comfortable. I remember when I was a freshman to my sophomore year, you feel like you’re almost a 10 year vet.”

UConn isn’t just hoping that comes true, it’s banking on it. By the end of the season, the freshmen were powering the team. Tomas Vomacka locked things down in net. Jonny Evans and Ruslan Iskhakov made a great forward pairing, and Jachym Kondelik was an assist machine all year long. Those guys were major contributors by the end of the season and should only build on that.

It’s the rest of the class that’s still a question mark. How much better are guys like Marc Gatcomb, Kale Howarth, Roman Kinal, Carter Turnbull? Will they make a big leap into becoming not just reliable but strong players for the Huskies? Not to take away from the other classes, but UConn’s success this season will largely depend on the performance of its second-year players.

How much do the freshmen contribute?

Despite losing Matej Blumel to the pro ranks already, UConn still has yet another talented freshman class. The Huskies have two NHL draft picks in Vladislav Firstov and Carter Berger as well as a future high pick in Yan Kuznetsov. But as UConn learned last season, you can’t rely too much on freshmen, especially early in the year.

“The one thing I learned from last year was that the freshmen don’t drive the bus — they they can be very talented — it’s your upperclassmen that are going to drive the bus,” head coach Mike Cavanaugh said. “So I’m hoping that they just acclimate themselves very well with the team this year and able to chip in.”

Berger, Firstov and Kuznetsov are the likeliest candidates to make an instant-impact due to their resume coming in but freshmen are always wildcards. As long as a few of the freshmen can hold their own early on in the season and they all improve throughout the year, there’s not much more the Huskies can ask for.

Can Vomacka avoid regression?

Although he spent much of the year splitting time with Adam Huska, Vomacka finished his freshman year with a goals against average of 2.32 — the second best mark in program history. As impressive as that is, a freshman goaltender’s stats should be taken with cautious optimism, especially if they didn’t spend a full season as the starter. Just look at Huska himself.

As a freshman, Huska finished fourth in program history with a 2.59 GAA. However, that average dropped over the next two seasons from 2.87 in 2017-18 (still eighth best in program history) to a brutal 3.34 last year. And it’s not as if the defense in front of him fell apart, either. Huska was a major reason for the Huskies’ struggles.

As a sophomore, Vomacka will be the clear starter start-to-finish unless injuries occur. That means he’s going to face a lot more shots — which means more chances to let the puck slip by. While it may seem like Vomacka’s GAA will go up because of that, there’s also reason to think it can stay the same. As a freshman, he wasn’t great at prevent rebounds which gave the other team extra chances to find the back of the net. Not only that, Vomacka spent a lot of time in the offseason preparing his body for the bigger workload.

“He made a great strides in the weight room,” Cavanaugh said. “I think (strength and conditioning coach) Mo Butler did a fantastic job with him. He increased his leg strength, I think more than anybody on the team as far as his explosiveness with his vertical jump. I think he went from 18 (inches) to need that explosiveness. When you play that position, you’re constantly up, be constantly down, you got to get post to post.”

Will UConn finally win a playoff game?

Since UConn moved up to Hockey East in 2014, there’s no question Cavanaugh has gotten the program pointed in an upward direction. Even with an ugly record last season, the bottom didn’t really fall out on the Huskies and they were playing with the most talented freshman class in school history.

There is one thing that looms over the program, though: UConn hasn’t won a Hockey East playoff game. In four series, the Huskies are 0-8-0 with a -15 goal differential. They’ve certainly come close, taking BU to overtime in game one of the 2017-18 quarterfinals but ultimately falling short.

UConn doesn’t need to seriously contend for the Hockey East crown this season. As we previously mentioned, that’s still probably a year away. But if the Huskies can get the monkey off their back and get that first win, who knows where they could go from there.