Over the last five games, UConn men’s hockey has played its best hockey of the season. After two ugly losses against Northeastern and Merrimack to start the new year, the Huskies regained the form they had at the end of the first half when they went 5-1-2 to close the semester.
The problem? UConn is just 2-3 in those five games, all of which were decided by one goal.
Mike Cavanaugh tries to focus on getting his team to play up to his potential, knowing that if they do, the results will come. He’s checked off the first box. It’s the second one that eludes Cavanaugh and the team.
“We have to continue to play the way we do,” Cavanaugh said. “We’re not really giving up a whole lot of zone time. We were carrying the play and when you do that, you find ways, usually, to win. You’re going to win more games than you lose playing that way. That’s what we have to keep working as a team and believing that it’ll turn for us.”
Geno Auriemma — someone pretty familiar with winning — recently described how players need to learn to win when they come to UConn. Now that the talent is comparable to the rest of Hockey East and the Huskies are playing up to their potential, Cavanaugh believes the next step for the program is instilling that winning mindset, starting with the little things.
“The first thing is playing the game the right way and the second part is you have to understand that blocking a shot, finishing your check, making a five-foot pass instead of trying to make a home run pass is just as important as scoring a goal because the more you do those things, those are the things that help you win games instead of trying to do it all yourself in one fell swoop,” Cavanaugh said.
With nine games left on the schedule, UConn sits precariously in the Hockey East standings. The Huskies are tied with Maine for the eighth and final place in the playoffs with 14 points, but are just six points behind first-place UMass with two games in hand. With a strong close to the regular season, UConn can not only secure its place in the postseason but potentially be in the mix to host.
But first, the Huskies need to learn how to win.
“I agree with [Auriemma],” Cavanaugh said. “There’s a way you have to learn how to win games and learn how to manage games. Those are the things that we’re going to have to accomplish here with nine games left.”
Home ice advantage
When the Huskies head up to Durham, New Hampshire for Friday night’s game, they will be faced with a unique challenge. UNH’s Whittemore Center features an Olympic-sized ice sheet (200 feet by 100 feet) instead of the 200 by 85 foot NHL-sized rink that most college teams play on.
While the extra 15 feet won’t change the game dramatically, it will create some minor differences in terms of style of play.
“The game typically isn’t as physical on the Olympic sheet because there’s more room,” Cavanaugh said. “Contrary to public opinion, who thinks there’s more room to make plays and the game’s so much better and there’s more offense, when you look at it there’s probably not as much offense because when you beat a guy on a smaller sheet or an NHL-sized sheet, you’re that much closer to the net and have a scoring chance.”
While UNH may have a slight advantage considering they practice on it, the Huskies their own advantages that come with Olympic ice.
“I think goaltenders maybe because their angles are a little bit different, they have to get used to it,” Cavanaugh said. “But we have a foreign goalie (in Tomas Vomacka) who has played on Olympic sheets for a long time.”
Scouting New Hampshire
UNH comes into the weekend with a 13-9-2 record while sitting in tied for sixth in Hockey East with 15 points. The Wildcats are unranked in the polls but are No. 14 in the Pairwise rankings. Cavanaugh knows that UConn will have its hands full trying to snap its two game losing streak.
“Pretty good special teams. They’ve been getting excellent goaltending. Mike Robinson only let up one goal last weekend against UMass, who’s pretty good team,” he said. “They’re really gifted offensively. They can beat you off the rush, they’ve got great offensively skilled players who can make plays and finish, we’re going to have to be really good through the neutral zone, manage pucks, and eliminate odd-man rushes.”
UConn is expected to be at full-go once again this weekend. That includes Ruslan Iskhakov, who missed the third period against Yale with an unspecified ailment.