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Behind the scenes of UConn men’s hockey’s preparation for Connecticut Ice

An inside look at how the UConn men’s hockey program operates.

Mike Cavanaugh
| Daniel Connolly - The UConn Blog

In the lead up to Connecticut Ice, UConn men’s hockey allowed Dan Connolly and The UConn Blog to follow with the program for a week, sitting in for coaches’ meetings, full-team meetings and practices.

“Offense is like a cat”

Mike Cavanaugh stood in front of his team in the locker room at Freitas Ice Forum talking about cats and dogs.

It’s the Tuesday after Martin Luther King Jr. Day, UConn men’s hockey’s first day of preparation for the inaugural Connecticut Ice Tournament taking place the following weekend. The coach places himself directly on the large Husky logo on the carpet of the locker room. The players sit in their lockers, forming a three-quarters circle around him. Everyone else — fellow coaches, training staff and other support staff — crams into the hallway entrance or opening to the bathroom.

Cavanaugh knows exactly what he wants to say. First, he nominates a player to read the quote of the day from the Golden State Warriors’ star forward Draymond Green, on the importance of “hitting first” on defense.

Cavanaugh breaks it down line by line, tying it to the team’s recent win over Northeastern. He emphasizes physicality, hitting first to get the puck on defense. He builds it all the way up before dropping the kicker.

“Offense is like a cat. Defense is like a dog. Who has a cat? (Carter Turnbull raises his hand). What’s your cat’s name? (Dora, Turnbull responds). When you’re in the house, you’re yelling for Dora, does she come? No. You can call a cat all you want, the cat never comes. Who has a dog? (Ryan Wheeler pipes up, his dog is named Bailey). When you say, ‘Come here Bailey,’ she comes right? The moral of the story is offense is like a cat.

“You can’t call on offense all the time. But defense has gotta be like your dog. Like Jachym, you should be able to go ‘Let’s dial it up, let’s buckle it down, there’s no getting anything here.’ Because defense is just structure and hard work,” Cavanaugh said. “Defense is going to win us trophies.”

Cavanaugh’s words proved to be rather prophetic. In two games in Bridgeport, UConn couldn’t call on its offense. Despite out-shooting Quinnipiac and Yale 72-49, the Huskies only managed a pair of goals in each game. Unfortunately, the Huskies couldn’t call on their defense either, despite their plans.

Here’s how Mike Cavanaugh’s staff and team prepared for an important weekend in the inaugural Connecticut Ice Festival.

The plan to make a plan

It’s Tuesday morning on the fringe of UConn’s sprawling campus at Freitas Ice Forum, home of the Huskies’ hockey programs. The men’s team’s assistant coaches’ office sits off the main lobby of the rink, a small room that doubles as a meeting room most days at 10 a.m.

The office shares a wall with the women’s bathroom, which forces a temporary pause in conversation whenever the hand dryer kicks up.

Cavanaugh enters and apologizes for a phone call going long. He navigates his way through the tightly-packed area, past Director of Hockey Operations Morgan Hall on his left, and plants himself in front of a large white board on the wall. Graduate assistant Joe Ferriss, a recent graduate of the hockey program, is in the corner staring intently at his computer screen.

It kicks off with the plan for practice. On this day, the focus will be closing the book on the team’s win over Northeastern while starting to plan for Quinnipiac. Cavanaugh bounces ideas off assistant coach Tyler Helton and Ferriss, suggesting points of emphasis and how to translate those points into practice drills.

The mood is light. While planning the day takes up a half hour, there are some detours and tangents in the conversation as well.

A few minutes in, Cavanaugh suddenly begins to talk about a Netflix movie he watched, “Basketball or Nothing,” which follows the Chinle High boys basketball team on the Navajo Reservation in Arizona. He describes the premise to Hall and Helton before admitting it was too slow for him, so he took to googling the team instead.

Cavanaugh and his assistants go back and forth on the topic for a little while before jumping back into hockey talk as quickly as they left it.

After 30 minutes, practice is set. Every drill is listed on the board with an exact time allotted to each one. The listed ended reading “4:05 - CONDITIONING.”

Next on the docket is film review from Northeastern. Pereira wants to see the clip of a shot by Ruslan Iskhakov where he nearly put a rebound in on the back side of net, a similar play to the one Benjamin Freeman made to win the game in overtime.

“Earlier, we had a power play, Ruslan went right to the post and almost scored,” Pereira said. “Right before that, there was a shot down and he went right down and almost put the rebound in over the goalie’s shoulder.”

Ferriss pulls up a handful of clips on the flatscreen television that sits next to the door and above the table, yet none of them are the one Pereira wants. Finally, the right one arrives.

“Oh, here it is, watch,” Pereira says excitedly. “BOOM. This one. Rusty (Iskhakov), he did what he was supposed to do. BOOM. Those will go in....He’s starting to buy into that spot.”

BRIDGEPORT — Five minutes are gone in the first-ever Connecticut Ice matchup between UConn and Quinnipiac. Iskhakov carries the puck behind the net and feeds it to Jonny Evans in the corner. The Bobcats quickly close him down, so the sophomore sends the puck out to defenseman Wyatt Newpower. The senior collects it, handles it briefly and fires a long shot on net from the blue line.

After Iskhakov released the puck, he curled back around to the net, where he posts up in front of QU goaltender Keith Petruzzelli. As Newpower wrists a shot towards the goal, Iskhakov leaks out behind the defender to the far post — the exact spot Pereira wanted him to be.

Newpower’s shot slides towards net before it connects with a stick and goes airborne. The puck clangs off the near post and slips across the crease behind Petruzzelli’s back. It settles right on the stick of the waiting Iskhakov, who lights the lamp with a flick into the back of the net.

UConn 1, Quinnipiac 0.

A day in the life

2:00 p.m — The program’s coaches and support staff line the wide hallway leading into the back of Freitas Ice Forum, where the team’s locker room is located. The last three players jaunt in from class together and slip into what’s about to be the film room. Cavanaugh emerges from his office around the corner.

“Are we ready?” he asks Helton.

Helton nods and a wave of people flood into the locker room.

Cavanaugh opens by introducing the team’s newest player, Matt Pasquale, a freshman goaltender brought in for the second semester. He stands at the middle of the room introduces himself before his new teammates try to get to know him with various personal questions.

Any siblings? Pets? Favorite Netflix show? Girlfriend?

Pasquale quickly responds back with short answers until pressed further. After the questions dry up, the freshman returns to his locker seat to a shower of snapping — in place of applause.

From there, it’s back to a normal meeting. Cavanaugh selects a lucky player to read the quote of the day and leads a discussion on its meaning.

Then, he brings it back to hockey. And as Cavanaugh starts to get into the week of preparation for Quinnipiac — a team UConn hadn’t played since early in the 2018-19 season — the coach owned up to a blunder he made in the lead up to that last meeting.

“You have to learn from failures. Last year, I made a major mistake when we were preparing for this team. They run a 1-3-1 (defense) in the neutral zone. They do the same breakout every time. The D (defenseman) goes back for the puck, there’s a D in the corner, there’s a center in front, the left wing goes to the corner and we focused so much on that and beating the 1-3-1 that we didn’t focus winning our 1-on-1 battles.”

With that admission out of the way, Cavanaugh feels his team is ready to start the week.

“Alright, film,” he says, turning around to rip the projector screen down from the ceiling as half the team moves to the floor on the far end of the locker room to have a better angle of the video.

Ferriss plugs his laptop into the projector while a corded remote control is handed to Helton, who will handle the film review. The topic is a recap of the Northeastern game and Helton has made it a point to highlight the team’s best moments from the win.

As each clip rolls, Helton walks the team through it and highlights bits and pieces with the laser pointer. Every now and then, Cavanaugh or Pereira will chime in with a comment or add to Helton’s points. The players ask their own questions to get clarification on what the coaching staff is looking for or how to better execute a certain situation.

Helton clicks to the next clip and when it arrives on the screen, a light chuckle goes around the room. It’s Jachym Kondelik’s game misconduct penalty for checking a Northeastern player into the boards well after the whistle. But that’s not what they’re laughing at.

Instead, it’s directed at Northeastern’s Riley Hughes, who grabbed Kondelik’s face mask after the hit. While it seems rather innocuous considering how violent of a sport hockey is, it resulted in a game misconduct penalty as well, meaning Hughes was ejected alongside Kondelik. Cavanaugh makes sure to spotlight it.

“Major mistake,” he said. “You get hit like that, nobody needs to come in and demo the guy. You can kind of push him away but you absolutely cannot grab the facemask. You just can’t do that. It evened the thing up right there. We got kind of lucky that Hughes lost his mind. You have that anger, you have to channel it the right ways. You can’t let the anger do something because it’s going to make you feel good and hurt the rest of the team.”

He pauses, before finding his closing message.

“It’s a fun week coming up. We get to play for another trophy,” Cavanaugh says. “Alright, let’s have a great day guys.”

The locker room explodes in a burst of claps and cheers as the team jogs out single-file into the hallway and down to the lobby, the only area large enough inside the facility where the team can stretch.

The team forms a rough oval, finagling themselves around a support post in the middle and between the wall and the tables that dot the space. Strength and conditioning coach Maureen “Mo” Butler’s voice cuts through with precise, direct orders on the next stretch or exercise.

“Don’t cheat yourself!” she commands.

As the team gets loose, Hall meanders around with various housekeeping measures. Today, he reiterates the importance of class attendance despite the temperatures outside struggling to reach the 20’s.

“Cold weather makes people not want to go to class,” he says with a wry smile. “Don’t let me catch you skipping class.”

When the warm up ends, silence falls over Freitas as the players return to the locker room and begin preparing for practice. The coaches slip in and out of their office to handle various tasks. Hall takes a phone call in the lobby. Distant voices and music can be heard from the locker room.

Inside the rink itself, the hum of the ice maker fills the barn. Team managers move around the stands getting ready for practice by setting up camera equipment, moving pads or delivering water bottles to the bench.

Suddenly, the buzz is broken up by the creak of the door onto the ice. Senior Sasha Payusov and sophomore Jordan Timmons are the first onto the ice this day. Payusov dumps out a plastic bucket of pucks that fan out across the ice. Timmons skates around without a puck, belting out a song.

As the rest of the team slowly begins to trickle out, the rink suddenly looks like it’s hosting a public skating session, with everyone methodically moving in a counterclockwise circle on the ice. Some players fire shots on net, others handle it to get loose. Cavanaugh skates through the neutral zone, attempting to throw the puck off his stick, high into the air and then catch it on the way down. When he gets inside the blue line, he blasts a slapshot towards net.

Suddenly, a whistle cuts through the air and everyone is off to the races. The sea of blue, white and gray jerseys speed around the ice before collecting along the boards for a quick meeting. Cavanaugh stands in front of a whiteboard that is suction-cupped to the glass, running through the plan of practice while diagramming the various drills on the board.

The team huddles up, breaks it down and divides into groups for whatever drills are on the docket that day for a half hour. Then comes the fun part: a 5-on-5 scrimmage.

Everyone divides into two teams. Cavanaugh takes one squad, Pereira the other. The sides go at each other for a few minutes at a time before congregating at the benches while the coaches draw up plays on whiteboards stuck to the glass.

After scrimmaging, they return to team drills before wrapping up practice with a competition, ranging anywhere from a shootout to a 3-vs-2 drill. Once a winner is crowned, the team gathers around Cavanaugh, who delivers one final message before everyone vacates the ice.

Cavanaugh (left) and Pereira (right) watch their respective teams scrimmage during practice.
Daniel Connolly - The UConn Blog

Keeping it light

Cavanaugh is talking about basketball again. He frequently uses other sports as a reference. Today he wants to talk about posting up in front of the goal.

“Who’s the big basketball guy?” he asks.

“Keaner,” a multitude of voices answers, referring to freshman goaltender Ryan Keane.

“The Celtics pumped your boy LeBron last night,” Cavanaugh says as the locker room bursts with laughter.

Once everything settles down, Cavanaugh breaks down the art of posting up in front of goal and how they need to feel the player behind them to know where they are. He grabs Helton to demonstrate and further drive home what he’s talking about.

Cavanaugh then points out junior forward Brian Rigali as someone who executes this well and explains how feeling where the defense is located will help beat Quinnipiac in the neutral zone.

Cavanaugh is finished making his point. But he gets one more jab in.

“That actually was a beatdown though,” Cavanaugh says to Keane. “I actually watched that game. Did you watch it?”

“No, I didn’t watch it,” Keane says unconvincingly.

“Yeah you did. 30 points,” Cavanaugh says with a smirk as the entire locker room howls with laughter.

“This is the best team we’ve faced”

UConn’s coaches are worried about Quinnipiac’s face-off play — and for good reason. The Bobcats entered the weekend winning 56 percent of their draws — the best mark in the country. As the coaching staff plans the Huskies’ final practice before they get on a bus and head to Bridgeport, they put an emphasis on face-off work.

“It’s going to be a huge part of the game for us,” graduate assistant Will Moran said. “I think it would be a good thing for us to make sure to go over who are options are, know who’s forechecking.”

“Emphasize that: ‘You guys have to know where they’re going,’” Cavanaugh replies.

In the team meeting the day before, Cavanaugh highlighted why his team needs to stay sharp in the circle.

“They love this face-off play. I want to see if we can get them out of it because if you can get this clean and whack it, we could get a breakaway here right away because they try to line up like this all the time,” he said, pointing out the way Quinnipiac is lined up for the draw. “If they do...if we lose it clean [Cavanaugh diagrams where everyone needs to be lined up with a laser pointer] the D is going to have to do exactly what their D did. You’re going to have to try to get a block there. So you know, Tomas, where they’re coming with that puck.”

“They’re looking to shoot off of everything.”

“White on defense, blue on offense,” barked Pereira as the team broke up from its pre-practice meeting.

Cavanaugh split off and went down the far side of the ice with the goaltenders. The rest of the team stayed in the other end for face-off drills, where Pereira was tasked with running things. One set of players from each team entered the offensive zone while everyone else stood outside the blue line with the coaches. Ferriss skated into the circle with a face-off with a puck, acting as an official.

The drill is simple, at least on paper: Blue is trying to put shots on net and score. White is trying to clear the zone. But there’s a wrinkle to it. Most of the time, Ferris drops the puck between the two players and clears out. But every few rounds, he throws it to the blue team in order to simulate Quinnipiac’s strength on face-offs.

On one “draw” between Zac Robbins and Benjamin Freeman, Ferriss tosses it to his right, straight to blue and skates off with a playful grin on his face.

Daniel Connolly - The UConn Blog

But for all that planning the coaching staff puts into a game plan, anything can happen on game day.

15 seconds after Iskhakov gave UConn a 1-0 lead in the first period, both teams prepared for a face-off in the Huskies’ zone. Quinnipiac lines up with its centerman in the circle, one player directly to his right, another off his back circle and two others set further back towards the center of the ice.

UConn flanks Kondelik with Turnbull on the left and Adam Karashik on the right. Marc Gatcomb stands in front of Tomas Vomacka while Jake Flynn takes Kondelik’s rear. Despite the amount of time spent on face-offs, the Huskies aren’t lined up right. And Quinnipiac is about to make them pay.

The Bobcats win the draw and the puck heads towards Karlis Cukste. He anticipates it, squares it up and fires a one-timer on net before anyone on UConn has barely managed to move. The puck zips through three Husky defenseman and past Vomacka into the net, tying the game at 1-1.

Sometimes, even the best schemes go awry.

Daniel Connolly - The UConn Blog

All for naught

Despite all the team’s preparation, it didn’t translate into success in the inaugural Connecticut Ice Festival. UConn outplayed Quinnipiac for two periods and totally dominated Yale — out-shooting the Bulldogs 44-24 — but ultimately fell 3-2 in both games.

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