To a casual observer, face-offs may look fairly simple. They serve as a quick way to start or restart play, the referee throws the puck down and two players slap their sticks at it. But what happens on the dot is far more complex.
“You’re looking at another players’ tendencies so if another guy always likes to slap your stick first, you know that,” UConn head coach Mike Cavanaugh said. “There’s a technique you can use to counter-attack, counter that move. Some guys like to try to pick the puck clean out of the air. Some guys are just really good and you understand ‘I’m just going to tie him up, let the wings help out.’ There’s all different techniques that you can learn about on film, then there’s different techniques that you have to learn what you’re really good at.”
This season, senior Benjamin Freeman has established himself not just as the Huskies’ go-to faceoff man, but one of the best at winning the draw in the country — ranking 37th nationally and seventh in Hockey East with a .569 win percentage.
Freeman wasn’t naturally a great centerman. Instead, he developed the skills necessary over the last four years to reach this point. Along the way, one key piece of advice Cavanaugh gave him was to hone in on one style and become great at it as opposed to just being good at a handful.
“(In basketball), some guys are great three-point shooters, some guys are great midrange guys. So whatever works for you, don’t be good at the three-pointer and the midrange, be great at one of them,” Cavanaugh said. “[Freeman’s] got a go-to move that he can go to and he can rely on in tough situations.”
That doesn’t mean Freeman exclusively uses that one move in every faceoff. Instead, the senior needs to feel out his opponents and figure out what’s working for him in a given situation against a given player.
“Some of it’s experience and playing and realizing like ‘This is when I can win. I feel very confident going against this guy with this move.’” Cavanaugh said.
As a team, UConn is 26th in the country with a .506 win percentage in face-offs. While that success certainly starts with Freeman, the Huskies have more than a few players they can go to in the circle, depending on what the situation calls for.
“[Freeman’s] very good but we’re lucky too,” Cavanaugh said. “For left-handers, Jachym Kondelik is pretty good and Kale Howarth isn’t a bad face-off guy. Ruslan Iskhakov has really improved his face-off play, Justin Howell is an excellent face-off guy. He was great up at Maine on face-offs. We’ve got a lot of guys, we spend a lot of time on it and it’s certainly important to us.”
Boston University enters into the weekend series with a 12-9-8 record (9-5-5 Hockey East), sitting third in the conference standings with 23 points in 19 games — three points above UConn with the same number of games played. The Terriers also rank 21st in the Pairwise Rankings, the sixth-highest Hockey East school and 18 spots above the Huskies.
However, BU has been plagued by inconsistency all season long. Despite a plus-.500 record and wins over the likes of BC and UMass, the Terriers also tied UVM (one of the Catamounts’ three points this season) and got blasted 5-1 by Merrimack.
Despite that, BU has talent on par with some of the top schools in Hockey East, something Cavanaugh knows not to take lightly.
“Their top five guys are elite,” he said. “Trevor Zegras is a first rounder, Patrick Harper is a first team all-league player, David Farrance might be the best defenseman in all of college hockey right now, Patrick Curry is a four-year veteran of that team, he’s having a great year, Logan Cockerill is a great player.”
Cavanaugh highlighted the Terriers’ power play (13th-best in the country) and their top line as the team’s biggest strengths, though there weren’t many weaknesses to point to.
“They’re a good hockey team, extremely well-balanced, good hockey team with some elite talent at the top of their lineup,” he said.
Last weekend, UConn was without sophomore forward Kale Howarth, who came down with a stomach bug prior the Huskies’ two-game set at Maine. He is since recovered from that and has returned to practice this week. He’s expected back in the lineup on Friday night.
Other than that, UConn is fully healthy as of Thursday afternoon — though that could change quickly, as we learned last week when Cavanaugh declared the team at full health only for Howarth to go down with the illness.
Recruits in the house
UConn will have a pair of prospects at Friday night’s game against BU at the XL Center. Brendan Fitzgerald, an ‘03 defenseman from North Reading, MA who plays with Boston Junior Eagles along with Jack Pascucci, an ‘02 defenseman out of North Andover, MA with Top Gun/NE Prep.