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UConn men’s hockey gearing up for big weekend series against Maine

The Huskies will need to improve their nation-worst penalty kill in order to leave Orono with points.

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Ian Bethune/The UConn Blog

Over the last seven games, UConn has played its best hockey of the season, riding a four-game win streak in Hockey East play. As impressive as they’ve been, their recent form pales in comparison to that of the Maine Black Bears (15-8-4, 9-7-2 HE), the team they’ll face in arguably their toughest challenge of the season when they travel to Orono, ME for this weekend’s two-game series.

The trip up north will easily be UConn’s longest journey away from Storrs this season. In terms of travel-time, its furthest game was either at Dartmouth for the Ledyard Classic or at UNH, while the only non-New England game was a quick shot up to RPI.

Unfortunately for the Huskies, this trek to Maine is a different beast all-together. While the aforementioned games in New Hampshire were roughly 2.5 hours from campus, Orono is five hours from Storrs — without traffic. Because of that, the team left early Thursday, choosing to stop midway for practice and lunch before resuming their drive that came to a welcome conclusion when they arrived at their hotel around dinner time.

While the sheer distance of the trip presents plenty of obstacles, the true challenge will come inside Alfond Arena where Maine is 10-0-2. This record gives the Black Bears one of college hockey’s best home-ice records this season and makes them one of just two teams in Division I men’s hockey without a loss at home.

“It’s just a tough building to play in,” UConn head coach Mike Cavanaugh said. “The fans are right on top of you. If you’re not used to it, you can get rattled by it. They’re really physical. It’s a small barn so it certainly suits their game well. We’re excited for the challenge.”

The Black Bears are also the hottest team in the country, coming into Friday night on a five-game winning streak with a nation-leading 9-1-1 record since the midseason break. Maine enters the weekend ranked No. 17 in the coaches’ poll and is 13th in the Pairwise Rankings.

The last time the Black Bears lost was Jan. 15, when they traveled to Bridgeport and suffered a 3-2 defeat at the hands of UConn. In that game, the Huskies recovered from a 2-0 hole and scored three-straight in order to secure two critical points. While UConn undoubtably earned that win, it did so by a thin margin.

“They played really well against us in Bridgeport,” Cavanaugh said. “That game could’ve gone either way. I think they have an outstanding power play. Right now they’re getting contributions from all three lines, their defense is big, Jeremy Swayman is arguably the best goaltender in the league.”

As Cavanaugh mentioned, Maine’s power play is the biggest concern for the Huskies. The Black Bears have scored on 21 of 104 chances (20.2 percent), which is good for 24th in the nation. On the other side, UConn’s penalty kill unit ranks dead last in the country, killing 69.0 percent of power plays (29-42).

In the Huskies’ last series against UNH, UConn allowed eight goals over the two games. Half of those came on the power play. For as well as the Huskies have played since the Merrimack loss, Cavanaugh knows it’s fools’ gold if his team can’t start killing penalties at a higher rate.

“Our penalty kill, that’s something that we’re trying to hone in on. I think it’s really, really important that we tighten that area up,” Cavanaugh said. “If we’re killing penalties at 70 percent, that’s not sustainable over the long haul. We’re not going to go far the rest of the season. We have to really be better in that area.”

In UConn’s last meeting against Maine, the Huskies locked down defensively after taking the lead with 16 minutes to play. They killed off two penalties and, despite getting outshot 16-6, held up without allowing a goal. Much of that came from each player’s willingness to sacrifice their own body to stop a shot, finishing the night with 15 blocks.

UConn’s objective will be to cut the number of power play goals allowed in half, which would bring the Huskies to roughly 85 percent on the PK. In order to do that, Cavanaugh believes that he needs to get everyone on the same page again.

“We have to do a better job of blocking shots, getting in lanes,” he said. “We’ve gotta be in sync more as a group. I feel like one guy’s zigging and another guy’s zagging. We have to work together as a group. If we go aggressive, everyone’s gotta go aggressive. If we’re going to sit back and eat pucks, we all gotta do that. We can’t have one guy go aggressive. We just have to be more in sync, more in rhythm as a group.”

Though UConn hasn’t faced a challenge quite like the one that stands before them this weekend, Cavanaugh and the Huskies are excited. With seven games left in the regular season, they’re in the thick of the playoff race with both home ice and even first place in reach. But in order to accomplish those goals, it starts with a strong weekend up north.

“It’s great. It’s so much more exciting than it was last year when we were basically out of it by this point. We’re excited and we’re looking at it as we’re not that far out of first place. We’re definitely within reach of home ice. That’s how we’re looking at it.”

Injury report

After leaving Friday night’s game against UNH with a lower body injury, Carter Turnbull will be a game-time decision on Friday night, though Cavanaugh did say that the sophomore skated this week. Other than Turnbull, UConn is expecting to be at full health for the weekend.

Other notes

  • Last week, Hockey East announced UConn’s Vladislav Firstov as the league’s Rookie of the Month. He scored five goals (including the game-winner over Maine) and four assists in the month of January.
  • Jonny Evans is the only player in the country with two hat tricks this season. The sophomore notched his first against UVM and his second in UConn’s last game against UNH.
  • UConn leads the all-time series (6-4-4) against Maine, making the Huskies the only Hockey East school with a winning record against the Black Bears.
  • Friday night’s game will be shown on CBS All-Access ($) while Saturday’s game will be broadcast on NESN. Puck drop for both games is set for 7:30 p.m.