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How UConn men’s hockey’s line changes work

A look inside the organized chaos that gets players on and off the ice for the Huskies.

Ian Bethune/The UConn Blog

Hockey has a few unique attributes compared to every other major North American sport. For starters, it’s played on ice. It’s also an enclosed playing area with no out-of-bounds unless the puck flies above the boards.

But perhaps the biggest difference is that substitutions are made on the fly with players simultaneously skating off the ice and climbing over the boards while the game is going on.

For an outsider, line shifts look like chaos. On the bench, while it happens so frequently that it almost becomes second-nature, it still requires preparation and coordination to prevent unnecessary penalties and avoid getting caught on the break.

UConn puts its four forward lines and three defensive pairings in an order before the game that the team sticks to throughout the 60 minutes, for the most part. Head coach Mike Cavanaugh taps a group to start on the ice for the face-off. From there, he calls out which lines and pairings are up next to go on the ice. Individually, each player then identifies which player they’re replacing to make sure it’s one off, one on.

“I say ‘Kale (Howarth) your line is up next,’” Cavanaugh explained. “If your line is up next, if you’re the left wing, Ruslan (Iskhakov) would say ‘I got Vlad (Firstov).’ The right wing, Carter Turnbull, says ‘I got Sasha (Payusov).’ So as soon as Kale’s line goes out there, I’ll say ‘Howell’s line is up next.’ We run through the same progression.”

If the Huskies deviate from that order, Cavanaugh tells the next-up group to hold and picks the lines he wants on the ice instead.

Once the puck ends up in a relatively danger-free area, such as down by the opposing net or on the stick of Tomas Vomacka, the switch is on. When a player gets on the ice, Cavanaugh said the ideal shift time is between 35-45 seconds.

“Typically, when you start getting around the 35-40 second mark, you want to get a change,” he said. “I think we’re playing our best when we’re having 40 second, 45 second shifts at the most. It’s when you get stuck out there for a long time that we can’t play at the pace we want to play at.”

While it’s easy to talk on the bench with all the players in close proximity, it can be nearly impossible to communicate with the players on the ice, especially in a loud arena. Because of this, the onus is mostly on the players themselves to know when to head off.

“When you’re playing at this level, it’s an inner clock that says ‘Hey, I’ve been out here too long, it’s time to get off,” Cavanaugh said. “You’re tired. After 35-40 seconds you’ll be tired. If you’re not, you’re not working that hard.”

Scouting Providence

The Friars come into the weekend sporting a 6-4-2 record (4-3-1 HEA) and the No. 12 ranking in the Coaches’ Poll. Since UConn joined Hockey East, Providence have given the Huskies fits with an 8-1-1 record during that time. Last season, the Friars drubbed UConn in both games with a 7-2 loss in the conference opener and a 5-2 defeat in February.

After a strong three-point weekend against UMass Lowell last weekend, Cavanaugh knows the Huskies will need another strong performance to keep the turnaround going against Providence.

“They’re good in all facets of the game,” he said. “We’re going to have manage the puck really well. We can’t give them any short ice sheets where we turn the puck over in the neutral zone and we’re giving them an odd man rush the other way. We’re going to have to manage the puck well, get it behind their defenseman and really go to work on our forecheck.”

Injury Report

No changes from last week as Jonny Evans (broken finger), Jake Flynn (shoulder) and Bradley Stone (mono) are all out.