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UConn men’s hockey looking to defense to help spark offense

The Huskies are coming off a weekend against Merrimack where they struggled to generate much of an attack.

Ian Bethune/The UConn Blog

Following an anemic offensive performance this past weekend against Merrimack, UConn men’s hockey is searching for ways to unlock its offensive potential. The Huskies took a season-low 18 shots on Friday night before beating that mark with a 17-shot day the following game.

UConn struggled to maintain possession in the offensive zone and went one-and-done far too often. Considering the amount of talent the Huskies have at forward, head coach Mike Cavanaugh knows that’s a trend that can’t continue.

“Without question, we need to generate more offense,” he said. “We can’t be a team that spends 65 percent of the time in our own zone. Even though I love the way we’re playing in our own zone and we’re not giving up a whole lot, it’s not a great recipe to win hockey games. We have to play down in the opponent’s zone a lot more this weekend.”

The coaching staff tried switching up some of the lines prior to Merrimack in an effort to spark something — moving Ruslan Iskhakov to left wing and sliding Jonny Evans to center along with switching Kale Howarth to center on a new line — to no avail. But after watching the tape, Cavanaugh thinks the key to opening up the offense lies with the defense.

“Merrimack, like most teams, will pack five guys close to their net so then you have to kick it out to your defensemen, you have to force them to extend the zone,” he said. “We did not kick the puck out to our defensemen. We were trying to fit the square peg in the round hole and pass it through sticks or jam a puck to the net when that wasn’t the best option. I think we have to utilize [the defensemen’s] skill of getting pucks to the net more this weekend.”

If the Huskies’ d-men can get shots in from the blue line, not only does that increase the team’s chances to score by hoping for a friendly bounce or a tip-in, it also creates havoc in the opposition’s defense if the goaltender can’t corral the shot.

“Playing defense off rebounds is hard because inevitably someone reaches for that rebound and now all of a sudden you’re out of position so if you can win a battle and kick it, that’s how you get teams running around,” Cavanaugh said.

Generally, there are three ways to score in hockey: On the rush — something UConn has done well this year. On the power play — where the Huskies have just one goal in 11 tries this season, and in the zone. With only one out of those three clicking, UConn’s offense is predictable and easy to stop.

If the Huskies can become more dangerous in offensive zone sets and hold onto the puck for longer stretches of time, that’s going to have a ripple effect throughout the team. Not only should it help to spark the power play, it’ll also benefit the defense by limiting the number of chances for the other team.

It’s certainly frustrating to watch a team that’s struggling to score, especially with a defense and goaltender playing as well as the Huskies’ blueliners and Tomas Vomacka. But Cavanaugh would rather have UConn hang its hat on defense rather than the other way around.

“At any point in the season, I’d rather have a stronger defense,” he said. “Offense comes and goes. There’s some nights you hit posts, the goalie’s hot — there’s certain things that happen offensively. The defense is something you always have to call on and rely on and know that’s always going to be there no matter what. That’s what you have more control over.”

Penalty Problem

This past weekend against Merrimack, UConn went to the box 10 times for penalties, continuing a trend that has plagued the team throughout the season. The Huskies’ penalty kill unit started the the season strong but faded recently as the number of penalties continues to pile up. It’s certainly a problem but not one overly difficult to solve, according to Cavanaugh.

“We have to skate more. We’re taking too many stick penalties,” he said. “We’ve taken hooking penalties and slashing penalties and tripping penalties. Those are all by-products of not skating. But when you skate, you don’t have to take those penalties.”

The coach quickly brushed off the notion that the lack of skating was due his team’s conditioning or effort. Instead he feels it’s a winning mindset that they still need to learn.

“There are certain times in a game ‘it’s going to be easier to use my stick.’ We have to ingrain that you always have to skate,” he said. “We have to understand that’s not how you win games consistently, by using your stick as opposed to your feet.”

No break against BC

Boston College comes into the weekend on a bit of a skid, having lost four of their last five games. But Cavanaugh knows better than to take the Eagles lightly, regardless of record.

“They’ve been a perennial powerhouse in this league now for over 20 years,” he said. “It’s like in the ACC in basketball. There’s always Duke and North Carolina and in Hockey East, there’s always BC and BU.”

Instead, the coach thinks BC’s recent run of form is more due to who it played as opposed to how it played.

“They’re coming off a big win over Providence — who I think certainly is one of the better teams in the league — at Providence, which is a tough place to win, and they beat Wisconsin, who’s a pretty good team,” Cavanaugh said. “They lost at Denver twice which is tough. They have a very good club.”

Other notes

  • Saturday’s game at the XL Center will be on NESN. It is the first UConn game to be broadcast on the network under the new TV deal between NESN and Hockey East that was announced back in September.
  • BC is ranked No. 19 in the country. Of the Huskies’ 10 games in November, six of their opponents are currently ranked.
  • All but two of UConn’s goals this season have been scored by a freshman or a sophomore. Junior Brian Rigali is the only upperclassmen to find the net so far.