Despite UConn men’s hockey’s growth as a program over its last six years in Hockey East, going from the plucky underdog to a team that can beat anyone on any given night, there’s one thing the Huskies are missing: A rival.
While Hockey East is exclusively made up of schools in New England, UConn is the sole member in Connecticut. The state’s three other major hockey schools, Sacred Heart, Quinnipiac and Yale, all play in different conferences, which means the Huskies will only see them once or twice a year at most. And just because two teams are situated within the same borders doesn’t automatically make it a rivalry.
Mike Cavanaugh is hoping the Connecticut Ice Festival can change that.
“As of now, no,” he said when asked if playing other Connecticut teams has any extra meaning. “Sometimes it doesn’t have that same rivalry intensity but I’m hoping this tournament brings more intensity to the matchups and really creates some rivalries going forward.”
Prior to this weekend, all of UConn’s meetings with the other three schools in the state were essentially meaningless non-conference games. It’s hard to get juiced up about a game that doesn’t have any significance to either side. But now that CT Ice is in the mix, there’s a trophy and state-wide bragging rights to play for. If the tournament becomes an annual event, animosity will certainly begin to develop at some point.
“I think rivalries always ratchet up the intensity, It certainly helps focus you as a team. But those will happen organically, I’m just not sure,” Cavanaugh said. “There has to be some bad blood to it somehow. That’s what stokes rivalries and keeps them going for years.”
While Cavanaugh didn’t pull a Bob Diaco and create a rivalry for his program on the spot, he did cross a few off the list.
“We’re still relatively new in Hockey East and you’re never going to be BC or BU’s rival because they’re each others,” he said. “Geographically, I don’t think Maine or Vermont will ever be rivals. We might have some intense games against them but I think it has to have some geographical component to it.”
As of now, there’s no obvious choice for UConn’s rival (I would’ve said Vermont if Cavanaugh didn’t shoot that down) but maybe that starts to change this weekend. It certainly doesn’t hurt that Cavanaugh poked the other Connecticut schools ahead of the tournament.
“I just think there’s been a lot of politics back and forth that quite frankly, I don’t have the answers to those and I don’t know the particulars that went into it,” he said on what took CT Ice so long to happen. “I just know UConn’s been in favor of it and will continue to be in favor of it for years to come.”
A look at the two newcomers
UConn men’s hockey officially added two players to the roster this week, bringing in goaltender Matt Pasquale while bringing back defenseman Bryan Nelson, who spent a year and a half with the team from 2016-2018 before stepping away to focus on academics.
Cavanaugh reached out to Nelson before the season began after the team learned it would be without Roman Kinal for the season due to blood clots. The senior agreed to come back for the final semester.
“He left the team in good graces. He’s a 3.5 GPA engineering student so he really wanted to focus on his academics,” Cavanaugh said. “When Roman went down for the year, I reached out to him and said ‘Hey, would you be interested in coming back because we only have seven defensemen,’ and he said yes to second semester senior year. It’s great having him back.”
Nelson is expected to serve as depth in case injuries or illness strike again, though the coach thinks he’ll have an impact on the team regardless of if he sees any ice time or not.
“Bryan’s just a big strong kid and he’s a good depth guy for us,” Cavanaugh said. “Great guy in the locker room, it’s great having him back around.”
As for Pasquale, he was also brought in with an eye towards depth. UConn has played three games this season without a backup goaltender and the rash of injuries and illness have forced the Huskies to be shorthanded between the pipes at practice too.
“It’s just a scary proposition going into a game with just one goaltender,” Cavanaugh said. “We’ve had too many practices this year where we only had two goaltenders. It beats your goaltenders up. We just brought in a fourth goaltender to compete for playing time.”
However, the Huskies didn’t just go bargain-bin shopping. They like Pasquale’s potential and think he could push to be a strong backup, if not starting goaltender.
“Matt is a big kid. He’s fundamentally pretty sound as a goaltender,” Cavanaugh said. “I think he has room to grow but he has a chance to compete for playing time here.”
Quinnipiac comes into CT Ice ranked No. 17 nationally sporting a 13-8-1 record. Offensively, the Bobcats are led by Odeen Tufto, who leads the team with 25 points on three goals and 22 assists. Wyatt Bongiovanni ranks first with 11 goals on the season.
Against Quinnipiac, UConn needs to be on top of its transition game. The Huskies have struggled with turnovers in the neutral zone at times and the Bobcats’ 1-3-1 trap defense is set up perfectly to jump on any lazy or imprecise passes.
UConn will have its hands full on face-offs as well. Quinnipiac ranks first in the country with a .560 win percentage while the Huskies sit at No. 24 with a .512 win percentage. The Bobcats aren’t just tough to beat on draws, they’re good at putting shots on net quickly off face-offs as well.
Cavanaugh knows his team needs to be on its A-game if it wants to move on to the championship game.
“They’re very structured. They defend well, they don’t beat themselves, they in position an awful lot,” he said of Quinnipiac. “They’re as good a face-off team as there is in the country, they really battle hard and they dog and hound the puck. They’re a top-notch team, year in and year out and we’re going to have to play our very best to beat them.”
Aside from Kinal, UConn is at full health this weekend.
- UConn is 4-10-2 in tournaments in the program’s Hockey East era. The Huskies are 2-4-2 in first round games.
- The sole trophy UConn has won under Mike Cavanaugh came back in 2016-17 when it claimed the Desert Hockey Classic.
- Benjamin Freeman is one of the best face-off men in the country this season, ranking eighth with a .606 win percentage.
- Both Adam Karashik and Wyatt Newpower rank near the top in the conference in blocked shots. Karashik is third in Hockey East with 38 blocks (1.73 per game) while Newpower is sixth with 31 (1.35 per game).
- Vladislav Firstov and Tomas Vomacka both earned Hockey East honors this past week. Firstov was named the Pro Ambitions Rookie of the Week with three goals in two games, including the game-winner vs. Maine. Vomacka was the Defensive Player of the Week after two of his strongest performances of the season.
- If the Huskies win, they will play for the championship at 7 p.m. on Sunday. A loss will put them in the consolation game at 3:00 p.m.
How to Watch
When: Saturday, Jan. 26, 4:00 p.m.
Where: Webster Bank Arena
Radio: UConn IMG Network