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UConn men’s hockey looking to make history this season

The Huskies have already reached their highest point total ever in Hockey East, but the senior class isn’t satisfied.

Ian Bethune/The UConn Blog

Mike Cavanaugh sat in his office surrounded by the memories of UConn men’s hockey’s best moments in Hockey East. On one wall hangs a panoramic shot of a near-capacity crowd at the XL Center for the Huskies’ first ever Hockey East game, a magical 1-0 win over Boston College.

On another wall, a framed collage of photos from UConn’s 5-4 overtime win against BU during the 2017-18 season, a game which capped a seven-game win streak for the Huskies — the high water mark so far for the young program.

And that’s it. Well, not exactly, there’s some other memorabilia scattered around, but nothing that commands the space of those two games.

It makes sense. UConn doesn’t have a long or lengthy history of hockey success. The Huskies have just a single conference title — from 2000, when they won the MAAC, which doesn’t even exist anymore. They’ve never made the NCAA Tournament. They’ve yet to even win a Hockey East playoff game.

However, there are signs that those barriers will be broken soon. UConn is already having its best year in Hockey East ever with 24 points and three games still to play. The team’s talent level is significantly higher than before with six of the program’s 13 NHL Draft picks on this year’s roster. And entering the second-to-last weekend of the season, the Huskies control their own destiny to finish as high as second place in the conference standings.

Much of that has to do with the team’s senior class. Benjamin Freeman leads the team with 19 assists and 26 points. Sasha Payusov sits on top of the leaderboard with 12 goals. Wyatt Newpower’s plus/minus is +23, nine more than the next closest and 13 more than the top mark in UConn’s Hockey East era. Justin Howell, though he doesn’t have the same point totals as the other three, has anchored a strong fourth line, is one of the Huskies’ top face-off men and is one of the best leaders on the bench.

And Cavanaugh wouldn’t want it any other way.

“It’s essential. They have to continue to keep doing it,” he said of the seniors’ production. “I told them right at the beginning of the year, I can guide the boat but I can’t row it. They have to play.”

But they haven’t just paved the way on the ice. All season long, Cavanaugh has credited the seniors for their leadership through both the highs — such as UConn’s 5-1-2 streak to close the first half — and the lows — namely the Huskies’ 6-2 defeat to Merrimack in early January.

Even when things did get rough, Cavanaugh didn’t panic because he knew the seniors wouldn’t. At some point in each player’s four-year career in Storrs, they all faced different forms of adversity and pushed through it.

“It wasn’t easy for them,” Cavanaugh said. “All of them at some point struggled in their career here and maybe sat games out ... Their resilience, and their attitude of working through those troubles, not quitting or making excuses for why they were having the success they wanted in the program, they just worked harder and I think that’s what made them great leaders.”

During their first year in Storrs, the four players didn’t contribute a whole lot. Freeman was the highest-scoring of the bunch with 12 points. The other three combined for just 10 total. Yet every player has developed into a critical piece of the Huskies’ lineup — a credit not only to their own work ethics but to the coaching staff as well, who work them every day. It’s a sign the team-building process is working.

But Cavanaugh isn’t just here to build a team. His goal is to build a sustaining program and in that process, developing great hockey players is only part of the equation.

“When I took the job, I said I want to graduate players, I want to make them better men and I want to compete for trophies. In that order,” Cavanaugh said. “Making them better men is essential to me. That’s more important than winning trophies. But I also understand if you’re not competing for trophies, you’re not going to have the chance to make better men. So they go hand in hand.”

It’s impossible to measure how much each senior has improved away from the ice. There aren’t any stats or highlight clips to look back on. Instead, the program’s culture has shaped each senior over their four years into the player and person that they are now.

It’s something that has taken time to establish and really take hold over the last few years. Except Cavanaugh doesn’t want all the credit for it. Instead, he passed it off to the rest of the program’s support staff.

“The program is not just my program. It’s a collaborative effort with everyone here,” Cavanaugh said. “You don’t just develop on the ice without developing as a person. Everybody is involved with developing these guys as people. And credit the players too for believing in what we’re doing here.

In fact, the coach went so far as to say the atmosphere that he helped create inside Freitas Ice Forum has nothing to do with him or even the program itself. Cavanaugh said they’re part of something larger than just one team.

“I want to be really careful that it’s not my culture. I want to be really careful with that because it annoys me when someone says ‘You have to come in here and change the culture.’ When I got to UConn, UConn athletics had an identity and there’s a strong culture,” he said. “It was my job to make sure the players I brought in here were going to adhere to that.”

Now, with a strong culture established, talented players and system for developing them, the program is in a position where it can start living up to that high UConn standard. With three games left in the regular season, the Huskies are in the drivers seat to host the first rounds of the Hockey East Playoffs. But their ambitions don’t stop there.

Newpower, the team captain, spoke about short-term and long-term goals. In the short-term, UConn is focused on beating UMass on Friday night. But from a overhead view, the Huskies’ seniors want to go out having blazed a new, uncharted path for the program.

“We want to get into the TD Garden. This program has never been and that includes winning playoff games which this program has also not done,” Newpower said. “As seniors, we talk about it. Along with being the first to do things here, we also want to be the first to go to places that maybe UConn teams haven’t really considered or haven’t really thought of.”

If they can do that, Cavanaugh will have to start making some more space on his walls.

Injury report

As of Thursday, UConn is at full health entering the weekend.

Other notes

  • After sweeping BU last weekend, UConn received six votes in the poll. It’s the most votes the Huskies have ever received in their Hockey East history.
  • Benjamin Freeman collected plenty of hardware this past week. With a seven-point performance against the Terriers that included game-winning assists in both games, Freeman was named Hockey East Player of the Week as well as NCAA men’s hockey’s second star of the week.
  • Freeman wasn’t the only one honored though as Sasha Payusov and Carter Turnbull were both named Hockey East Top Performers. Payusov recorded both game-winning goals — including the overtime winner on Friday night — as part of a four-goal weekend. Turnbull, meanwhile, racked up a goal and four assists.
  • Both games are on the air this weekend. Friday night will be broadcast by CW20 while NESNPlus will carry the game on Saturday.