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UConn men’s hockey’s seniors all took different journeys to success

The Huskies will celebrate their five-player senior class on Friday night against UMass.

Ian Bethune/The UConn Blog

On Friday night at the XL Center, UConn men’s hockey will celebrates its senior class on Senior Night. The Huskies will honor five players: Benjamin Freeman, Justin Howell, Bryan Nelson, Wyatt Newpower and Sasha (Alexander) Payusov.

Each one had a vastly different career with UConn, ranging from consistent four-year presences like Freeman to guys who had to fight for everything they got like Howell to Nelson, who left the program to focus on academics only to return. Nobody in the class was an NHL Draft pick or a highly-touted recruit.

Instead, every one had to fight through obstacles and overcome the bad times in order to develop as a contributor for the Huskies, whether it be on or off the ice.

These are the stories of UConn’s 2020 senior class:

No. 22 Justin Howell - Forward

Saint Paul, Minnesota
Career stats: 72 games, 5 goals, 6 assists, 11 points

Ian Bethune/The UConn Blog

Howell’s journey to UConn wasn’t so much about recruiting. Instead, it resembled something closer to chain migration.

But first, his story begins with his fellow classmate, Wyatt Newpower. A fellow Minnesota native, Newpower didn’t know much about the Huskies’s hockey program or the school — besides the fact that it had dominant basketball programs. But he looked up the roster and saw two fellow Minnesotans in Johnny Austin and Spencer Naas.

Newpower played with Austin’s younger brother growing up and had mutual friends with Naas, so he reached out to ask about UConn. Both went to Storrs right out of high school too — the same situation Newpower was facing. It didn’t take long to convince him.

“Those guys had nothing but great things to say about the program here,” he said.

So Newpower committed and came out east for the summer to get acclimated to the program. He wasn’t even finished with his paperwork to play before then-assistant coach Joe Pereira called Newpower up and asked him if he knew Howell.

And as it happened, Newpower and Howell played together almost every year for spring hockey and knew each other well. Newpower agreed to call him up. Howell didn’t need much convincing.

“[Newpower is] the one that called me first and asked if I was interested,” Howell said. “After that, [UConn] gave me a call. It was pretty much my first offer so I just took it and said ‘Why not?’”

As a freshman, Howell saw action in 24 games and recorded three points. But over the next two years, he struggled to stay healthy and often found himself watching from the stands. Howell stuck with it though and now as a senior, he’s played in 29 games and doubled his point total from freshman year. However, Cavanaugh said Howell’s biggest impact doesn’t have anything to do with his performance on the ice.

“He’s really good — and he’s always been really good — on the bench, whether he’s playing a lot of minutes or whether he’s not,” Cavanaugh said. “To me, he’s your quintessential team player. He’s a team guy. At the end of the day, it’s not important to him how many minutes he’s played, how many points he has but did the team win? I think he’s always been focused on that and I think that’s what makes him such an integral part of our team.”

No. 24 Benjamin Freeman - Forward

Freeport, Maine
132 games, 25 goals, 50 assists, 75 points

Ian Bethune/The UConn Blog

Of all the members of the senior class, Freeman leads the way with 132 games played — 22 more than the next closest — as well as 75 points. He’s only missed six games total in his collegiate career, and four of those came during his freshman campaign. But it hasn’t been all roses for Freeman.

“He did struggle at times,” Cavanaugh said. “He had some really low times in the program.”

But even when Freeman’s play on the ice dipped, his mentality didn’t.

“It hasn’t been the most consistent career but I think my attitude has been pretty constant so that’s something I’m proud about,” he said.

This year, it’s not hard to look at the stat sheet and see his team-leading 19 assists or 26 points. Cavanaugh has spent plenty of time talking about his abilities inside the face-off circle as well.

But those aren’t Freeman’s most defining features. Among all Freeman’s talents on the ice, Cavanaugh raved most on Thursday about his senior’s leadership abilities. Though he’s not the loudest or the one with the most enthusiasm, Freeman is one of the team’s most convincing leaders.

“Ben’s very comfortable with who he is as a person,” Cavanaugh said. “If he tried to be vocal, it would come off as not authentic. You know people like that and you’re like ‘That’s not really him.’ ... Ben’s very comfortable with who he is as a person and because of that, people trust him. That’s how he can be a very, very effective leader as well.”

Cavanaugh pointed to Freeman’s high grades, his professional attitude and his easy-going nature as just some of things that make the senior unique. But nothing highlighted that more than the way Freeman looked back on his last four years. Most people think their college careers go by too quickly. Freeman disagrees.

“Not really. I try to think about things I’m grateful for every day and being at UConn is one of them,” he said. “I do think a lot about that so for most people I think it goes by fast but for me, I don’t think it went fast.”

No. 9 Alexander Payusov - Forward

Montreal, Quebec
107 games, 40 goals, 22 assists, 60 points

Ian Bethune/The UConn Blog

Mike Cavanaugh is not one for hyperbole. He’ll give credit where credit’s due but rarely does he make bold, sweeping statements. Which made this declaration about Sasha Payusov all the more credible:

“His work ethic is second to nobody on this team,” Cavanaugh said. “Nobody has spent, in their career, more time working on his game on the ice than Sasha.”

The coach immediately pointed to Payusov’s second goal against BU last Saturday where he fired a shot through a defenseman’s stick and into the back of the net. The senior forward works with assistant coach Tyler Helton on that very same play every single day in practice and finally on Saturday, it helped him reach his second-career hat trick.

This season has featured a similar arc to Payusov’s career as a whole. It took him eight games to find the back of the net for the first time and he finished the first half with just three goals total. As a freshman, he also struggled to score, recording just two assists in 15 games.

Even as the calendar flipped to the new year, Payusov still struggled to kick it into gear with only two goals in UConn’s first nine games of the second half. But since the Huskies’ home win over UNH, the senior has been on a tear with seven goals in five games. And Cavanaugh has a simple explanation.

“He’s just starting to play with more emotion and passion and you can just see it on the ice,” the coach said. “It’s a lot like humidity. You can’t see humidity but you can feel it. I can feel Sasha’s passion right now when he’s playing. It’s not something you can work at, it just has to happen. And it happened for him. And we need that from him going down the stretch.”

However, Payusov took a page from his coach’s own playbook and brushed off his recent form, instead crediting his teammates for the success.

“I think I just stuck with it. I’m putting more shots on the net, I’m finding some opportunities that I wasn’t really capitalizing on in the beginning of the year,” he said. “Linemates are playing very well, so that definitely helps me. It’s not really about me though right now. It’s about the team. However I can help is my goal.”

Through his four years, Payusov’s been through the highs of the 2017-18 season that featured the seven-game win streak but he’s also been through the lows, like when the team struggled to just a 12-20-2 record. But now that UConn has a team that can compete with anyone in the country, Payusov has his sights set high for the end of his senior year.

“Winning a Hockey East championship, definitely and then going onto the tournament and winning that championship,” he said. “That’s our ultimate goal.”

No. 20 Wyatt Newpower - Defenseman

Hugo, Minnesota
111 games, 11 goals, 33 assists, 44 points

Ian Bethune/The UConn Blog

Entering the final stretch of his senior year, Wyatt Newpower is on pace to make history. With three regular season games and a to-be-determined number of postseason ones left, the defenseman is at +23 — a statistic where players get one point if they’re on the ice when their team scores a goal and lose a point if their team gives one up. That would be the highest mark in UConn’s Hockey East history by +13, set by Derek Pratt (+10) during the 2016-17 season, per Adam Giardino.

That’s an impressive feat on its own, but made even more incredible by the fact that Newpower finished last season at -16 — the worst mark on the team. Though Cavanaugh warned against putting too much stock in plus/minus, he did say that in Newpower’s case, the number is relevant.

“You have to be careful with plus/minus because it’s not always attributed to your play but if a number is really big or really bad, there’s usually something to it,” he said.

The turnaround has been remarkable, though Newpower was quick to slide the credit to anyone but himself.

“It’s obviously a production business at this level and then higher so being able to have confidence is huge,” he said. “You gotta have confidence in yourself and this coaching staff has instilled a lot of confidence in every guy.”

However, that confidence wasn’t necessarily there through his first two years. Newpower was okay but not great as a freshman and sophomore, but there were lingering issues that weren’t directly related to his performance on the ice. Though Cavanaugh declared his senior as one of the most coachable kids on the team now, he said that wasn’t always the case.

“We had a heart-to-heart conversation after his sophomore year,” Cavanaugh said. “He stayed here the entire summer, he put the work in and he became a very valuable player for us.”

Cavanaugh suspected it might’ve had something to do with Newpower’s comfort with the team’s coaching staff, which was reshuffled after Brendan Buckley left for BC and Tyler Helton joined the staff full-time.

“Through my four years, I’ve played for two different defenseman coaches now,” he said. “Two years I played for Coach Buckley but Coach (Helton) was still here. When he stepped in, I have a great relationship with all of them, our entire staff.”

In Cavanaugh’s eyes, that made all the difference.

“He doesn’t take things personally,” he said of Newpower. “I think he feels trust now with our staff that ‘Anything they’re telling me is trying to make me a better player.’”

Now, with the senior playing the best hockey of his career while UConn is playing as well as it ever has, Newpower is looking bring the program to the next level before he leaves.

“We know what it’s like on both ends of the spectrum and for us to be able to help push this team to where we are now with goals of going even higher, it’s been an honor to be in this position and we’re really hoping to push for something even better,” he said.

No. 4/26 Bryan Nelson - Defenseman

Upton, Massachusetts
4 games played, 0 points

Ian Bethune/The UConn Blog

Though much of Friday night’s attention will be focused on the four aforementioned seniors, they aren’t the only ones that’ll be honored. Bryan Nelson will also be part of a ceremony, something that would’ve seemed like only a pipe dream back in October.

After three semesters where he played in just four games, Nelson decided to leave the team in order to focus on his academics as a mechanical engineering major. However, it was an amicable split and he continued to support the team from afar.

So when Romal Kinal went down before the season with a blood clot in his shoulder, the coaching staff reached out to Nelson to see if he’d be interested in returning for his senior season. He agreed to come back for the second semester and now provides depth on defense as well as a locker room presence.

Nelson hasn’t dressed since his return and it’s unlikely he does Friday night, even if it is senior night. But in the end, he will still go down as having one of the most unique careers in the history of the program, even if he didn’t make much of an impact on the ice.