UConn men’s hockey would be forgiven if it wasn’t over the moon about returning to play against No. 2 Boston College. The Eagles are 4-0 on the young season and coming off a weekend where it demolished No. 12 Providence by a combined score of 12-0 over two games. The Huskies, meanwhile, have been off for three weeks.
But the opponent doesn’t matter. Mike Cavanaugh’s squad just wants to play a game again.
“I think if we were playing the Boston Bruins we’d be excited,” Cavanaugh said. “Honestly, our players are just dying to play a hockey game and Boston College is a great team and they’ve had a great tradition and program for a long time, but our players are just excited to play a game.”
Cavanaugh admitted the last few weeks have been trying for the program. The Huskies were supposed to play Maine following the UMass series, but the Black Bears suspended athletics into December. Last weekend, UConn was slated to play one game against BU but that quickly fell apart after a member of the Terriers’ program tested positive for COVID-19.
The Huskies found out they wouldn’t play Maine early in the week leading up to the game, but the matchup with BU was canceled just two days prior. That instability and uncertainty is taxing on both the players and the staff.
“It’s been certainly challenging for us, the past couple of weeks,” Cavanaugh admitted. “I think [the players] handled it better than I have. It’s been frustrating because you get really geared up.”
There is a silver lining to UConn’s two weekends off, though. Ahead of the season opener against UMass, Cavanaugh described his team’s preseason as “fractured” and didn’t feel his team was in good shape due to various quarantines and shutdowns. Now, after three weeks of uninterrupted practice, the Huskies’ fitness is where it should be.
“I feel much better about our team this weekend conditioning wise than I did three weeks ago when we started with UMass,” Cavanaugh said.
But even with that, the coach would rather his team have regained its conditioning while playing games instead of in practice.
“You do need game reps,” Cavanaugh said. “Your power play can only go against your own guys — your penalty kill — for so long. Your penalty kill can only go against your power play for so long. You need to see opponents and you need to get those game reps. Line changes are really hard unless you’re in the middle of a game. So the little nuances of the game where you just need reps and experience, that’s something that we’re still in the infant stages with.”
The long delay between games has also created a challenge for the coaching staff. During a normal season, teams focus on getting ready for the first games during the preseason and once those games begin, the coaches can use film to fix issues from the weekend prior and begin preparing for a new opponent.
But neither Maine or BU had played a game when UConn started its preparation, so the Huskies didn’t have any video to breakdown or game plan against. There was also only so much UConn could do with the tape from the UMass games. That meant the coaches needed to get creative.
“Practices can get monotonous after a while. It’s like ‘What are we going to work? How much, Coach, can we work on the forecheck? How much do you want us to work on d-zone coverage? We’ve been doing this for a month now,’” Cavanaugh said. “So this week it’s been a nice change where we have an opponent who’s played the last two weekends and we have some film and we can get familiar with their personnel and try to prepare for an opponent — which is back to normal for us.”
UConn is certainly facing an uphill battle against Boston College. Not only are the Eagles more talented — even without three players who are away at World Juniors — they’ve also played games each of the last two weekends while the Huskies have watched from the sidelines.
All in all, it’s not an ideal situation for UConn to be in entering a weekend against the No. 2 team in the nation. Because of that, Cavanaugh wants his team to focus on themselves and their own game, not BC.
“I just want us to compete. I don’t want us to look at rankings,” he said. “I want us to go out and compete and play our style of hockey. I think we’re playing best when we’re skating and we’re pressuring and we’re competing and we’re fighting for every inch of that ice. I think that’s when we’re playing at our best whether it’s Boston College, whether it’s Merrimack, whether it’s St. Cloud. It doesn’t matter what team we’re playing in our league or in the nation. Those are the things we have to focus on.”
Depth getting tested
UConn will be without its two Russian sophomores this weekend: Forward Vladislav Firstov and defenseman Yan Kuznetsov. The pair are away from the team at Russia’s World Juniors camp. Though both players play key roles, the Huskies are more equipped to replace Kuznetsov on defense.
“On defense, we’re pretty deep,” Cavanaugh said. “We have eight players that can play on any given night. So I feel pretty strong on defense even though Yan’s a big part of our defense.”
As for Firstov, UConn is thin up top — especially since junior John Wojciechowski out with a shoulder injury — with just 13 forwards available to dress for 12 spots in the lineup. That means the Huskies will likely rely on players such as sophomore Eric Linell (no points in 15 career games) and freshman Gavin Puskar (inactive against UMass).
“I’ve always said if you’re on a roster, you have to be expected to contribute at some point,” Cavanaugh said. “So if it’s your time to shine then that’s what you have to do, and that’s why we practice so hard. Whether you’re the top forward on the team or the 15th forward on the team...at some point, you’re going to be asked to contribute.”
If Firstov and Kuznetsov make the team, they’ll not only be the first collegiate players to make Russia’s World Juniors team, they’ll also be the fourth and fifth Huskies to play in the World Juniors, joining Tage Thompson (USA), Adam Huska (Slovakia), and Jachym Kondelik (Czech Republic).
Boston College will also be shorthanded thanks to the tournament. Star goaltender Spencer Knight, top scorer Matt Boldy, and defenseman Drew Helleson are at the US’ World Juniors Camp while forward Alex Newhook (42 points as a freshman last year) is with the Canadian team. All four will miss both games against the Huskies.
UConn is only expected to be without Wojciechowski due to a shoulder injury. Carter Berger (non-COVID illness) and John Spetz (unspecified) both missed time against UMass but are back now.
Cavanaugh spoke with the media on Zoom prior to practice on Wednesday so the injury report is subject to change in the days leading up to Friday’s game.
- UConn has only beaten a No. 2 ranked team once in program history — the 2018-19 season finale against eventual national runner-up UMass. The Huskies have beaten a handful teams ranked No. 3 but have never played a No. 1.
- Though UConn defeated BC in its first-ever Hockey East home game way back in 2014, the Huskies are just 1-11-1 against the Eagles since then.
- Boston College is also the only Hockey East school that UConn hadn’t played prior to joining the conference.
How to watch
Hockey East announced new start times for both games. Friday night’s matchup is set for a 6 p.m. puck drop on NESN. On Saturday, the action begins at 3:30 p.m. on CW20 in Connecticut. ESPN 97.9 will carry both games on the airwaves as well.
Even with Boston College without a few of its best players, the Eagles are still really, really good. Add in the fact that UConn is coming off three weeks without a game and the odds really start to stack up against the Huskies.
I think BC takes Friday night in a game that resembles the season opener against UMass, say a 4-1 final. On Saturday, maybe a combination of some Freitas magic and a Rob Nichols-esque performance from Tomas Vomacka helps the Huskies steal a 2-1 victory.