On Thursday at Freitas Ice Forum, UConn men’s hockey hit the ice for the first time since its worst loss of the season, a 6-2 defeat to Merrimack on Tuesday. After that game, head coach Mike Cavanaugh dispelled the notion that his team’s performance was related to a lack of confidence.
“I don’t know. I just think quite frankly, the last two games started the same way and we start feeling sorry for ourselves. Maybe that’s confidence, maybe not,” he said.
At the end of practice, Cavanaugh gathered the team around him. He spoke about confidence — but not in the way one might expect from a coach. Instead, Cavanaugh portrayed confidence as something close to a fallacy.
“Confidence is all about you getting out of your own head. Saying you don’t have any confidence, that’s your fault,” he said. “If I’m putting you on the ice, I’m telling you I have confidence you can do the job. If I’m not, then I’m telling you I don’t have confidence in you. Every time you go on the ice, I’m telling you, you have confidence. Every time in practice, I’m giving you a rep, I have confidence you can handle this and you gotta believe the same thing.”
Cavanaugh used a basketball reference to further nail down his point.
“When Steph Curry misses a three, do you think he says ‘Oh god I can never make a three again?’ Never. ‘I’m going to make the next one.’ That’s how you have to think in this game,” he said.
Despite two tough losses in its last two games, UConn has shown it can be one of the better teams in Hockey East when it plays at the top of its game. The Huskies closed the first half with a 5-1-1 record and earned points against a pair of ranked teams in UMass Lowell and Providence.
It isn’t a matter of skill or talent when UConn plays poorly but a lack of mental toughness. The team hasn’t pushed through adversity well in the last two games. At times, giving up one goal sometimes feels like giving up three. Cavanaugh is trying to kill that mindset.
“I think too many of us are feeling sorry for ourselves and if don’t we make a play or if we get scored on: woe is me; doom and gloom. You can’t have that,” he said. “To play at this level, you have to be borderline cocky that ‘every time I step on the ice, I’m going to score.’”
Thinking they can make a play isn’t enough. The Huskies need to not only believe but expect to make that play. That’s what separates good players from the great ones.
“Alex doesn’t think there’s a goaltender in the league who can stop his shot and that’s why he scores a lot,” Cavanaugh said. “Great goal scorers don’t believe there’s a goalie that can stop them and great goalies don’t believe there’s a guy who can beat them. And if they do beat them, they got lucky. That’s the mentality you need to have to compete at a real high level.”
Surviving the bad times
While the loss to Merrimack was certainly disappointing to Cavanaugh, he admitted it wasn’t totally unexpected. The combination of scheduling quirks and illnesses running rampant through the locker room have made the first few weeks back at practice feel disjointed. Cavanaugh didn’t use that as an excuse but as an example of how turbulent the course of any given year is.
“The season never goes perfect from day one to the end. It doesn’t,” he said. “Coaches’ seasons don’t go perfect from day one to the end. There are ups and downs.”
The Huskies can certainly attest to that. They had a rocky start to the year capped with a terrible weekend against Boston College before they got hot to close the first semester. Now, UConn finds themselves back on a downslide.
But it isn’t alone. Those same Eagles were a .500 team entering the weekend against the Huskies and lost four in a row — including two games where they allowed six goals and two where they were shutout. BC then flipped it around to win nine in a row before then falling to UMass on Friday night.
No teams are immune from the low points of the year. Some are just better at managing them than others.
“You’re going to battle ups and downs. How you handle the downs is really important,” Cavanaugh said. “When things aren’t going well, how do you handle those things? When you’re not playing at your best, how do you handle that and how bad are you when you’re at your worst?”
As Tuesday showed, UConn is a really bad team at its worst. But its high points are pretty high. The trick as the stretch run approaches will be maintaining the good times while limiting how far down the valleys go. If the Huskies can successfully do that, they’ll be playing meaningful hockey in March.
Providence enters the game at 12-5-5, ranked No. 12 in the nation. The Friars are led by two of the best forwards in the country in Jack Dugan and Tyce Thompson, who are first and third in the country, respectively, in points per game. But as good as that pair is, Cavanaugh doesn’t want to direct too much attention towards them.
“They’re both great players,” he said. “When they’re on the ice you’re cognizant of that but we just have to focus on playing our hockey. I think you can get paralyzed if you go ‘Oh god, Dugan’s on the ice.’ You’re cognizant of it, you don’t want to turn the puck over and make it easy for him.”
After back to back bad performances, Cavanaugh isn’t overly concerned about the final score. Instead, he wants the team to focus on playing the way it did against Dartmouth and before break. If UConn can do that, the results will follow.
“We have to play our game and focused on playing our game, not their game,” he said. “We really have to focus not on the result but getting back to playing that blue collar style.”
The flu and other viruses continue to have a tight grasp on UConn’s locker room. Since the second half began, Jonny Evans, Benjamin Freeman, Alexander Payusov, Bradley Stone, and Tomas Vomacka have all missed time due to various sicknesses while other players have played through their symptoms.
The Huskies aren’t dealing with any injuries at the moment but could still have any number of players miss time if they get sick.
How to watch
Time: 5 p.m.
Where: Schneider Arena, Providence, RI
Stream: CBS All-Access