UConn men’s hockey clinched a Hockey East playoff spot with a 3-2 comeback win over UMass last weekend but its positioning in the conference tournament is still up for grabs. We broke down each scenario in-depth here but if UConn gets a win or tie at No. 12 UMass Lowell on Friday night, it’ll secure home ice in the quarterfinals for the first time in program history.
A victory would also give the Huskies their most wins and highest finish ever in the conference. There’s no doubt this is one of UConn’s most important regular season games in its Hockey East era, but head coach Mike Cavanaugh isn’t worrying about the consequences of the result.
“I think we just have to treat it like another game. We know Lowell, we’ve played them twice, they’re a very good team,” he said. “I think they’re as disciplined a team as we’ll play all year long with how they play the game. They’re very hard to play against. So I think we have to focus more on our opponent and how we play than what the ramifications are if we win.”
And while the final score of this game will directly impact where UConn ends up in the playoffs, a win still gives the Huskies two points and a tie one point — the same as every conference game. UConn wasn’t playing to clinch home ice when it played UMass Lowell back in November. The Huskies are trying to take the same approach on Friday night.
“I was just reading a story about a golfer in a major tournament,” Cavanaugh said. “You have to just play your game consistently. You can’t try to do anything to win that tournament. The best way to win that tournament is to stay relaxed and play your game. Not someone else’s game, play your own game.”
Cavanaugh wants his team to maintain that philosophy with the postseason on the horizon.
“In the playoffs, you certainly understand the magnitude of the games. Your season could end, you understand that,” he said. “But if you want to be successful, the teams that I’ve been around that have been successful and won it all, they haven’t tried to win a Hockey East championship. They’re just trying to beat their next opponent.”
“My focus isn’t ‘Hey, let’s get home ice.’ It’s ‘Hey, let’s beat Lowell.’”
“I don’t look at them as freshmen anymore”
UConn men’s hockey features one of the youngest teams in the country — specifically eighth-youngest with an average age of 21 years, four months according to College Hockey News. On the Huskies’ 28-man roster, there are eight freshman and 11 sophomores.
However, that youth is most apparent in the defensive core, where six of the nine players are underclassmen. In UConn’s last game against UMass, four of the seven defensemen that dressed were freshmen.
That youth has led to inconsistent play throughout the reason, part of the reason the Huskies rank 45 out of 60 in the country with 103 goals allowed. But recently, UConn’s defense has firmed up and allowed three or fewer goals in 10 of its last 13 games. So, where the freshmen deserved a slice of the blame for the Huskies’ struggles earlier in the season, they now deserve equal credit for the improvement as of late.
“I don’t look at them as freshmen anymore,” Cavanaugh said. “I think when you’re 33 games into the season and you’ve played in every rink and you’re familiar with how we want to play and what the opponents do, I think you’re experienced enough now to not be freshmen. I don’t expect them to play like freshmen anymore.”
Specifically, Carter Berger is finally beginning to come around. The Vancouver native came to UConn highly-touted as a fourth round pick of the Florida Panthers but hasn’t distinguished himself from the other D-men. While Berger closed the first half strong with an assist in the final three games but other than that, he has only totaled 10 points on the season.
But this past weekend, Berger racked up a goal and two assists in the Friday night win over UMass, enough to earn him Hockey East Top Performer honors. It was an encouraging sign from the freshman but for Cavanaugh, he doesn’t need stats to tell him Berger is playing at a higher level.
“I think lately, he’s really using his legs to make plays and not relying on his hands because that’s his greatest attribute. He can really skate,” Cavanaugh said. “When he can use his legs, move the puck, join the play, he’s a hard guy to defend. That’s what he did really well last weekend.”
As strong of a team as UConn is, it doesn’t get many contributions on offense from its defensemen. Wyatt Newpower leads the group with 22 points (three goals, 19 assists) but after him, the next highest is Yan Kuznetsov with 11.
While the Russian might have the highest potential of all the D’s — he’s expected to be a high pick in this upcoming NHL Draft — Berger can make the biggest impact on offense for UConn down the stretch this season. He’s one of the Huskies’ quicker defensemen and if he can find a way to start contributing to the score sheet on a consistent basis, it’ll help the Huskies add another element to their offense.
“We want all our D involved in the offense,” Cavanaugh said. “It’s no secret we like to play fast and play uptempo and in order to do that, you have to have at least four guys involved in your offense. Sometimes five. If you’re going to do that, your defensemen have to be mobile and they have to be willing to jump up offensively.”
Once again, UConn expects to be at full strength when it takes the ice Friday. Johnny Evans dealt with a stomach bug earlier in the week but has since recovered and practiced the two days leading up to the game.
How to watch
Puck drop is scheduled for 7:15 p.m. and will be streamed on CBS All-Access. The subscription costs $7.99 a month but new users can get a seven-day free trial. 97.9 ESPN will also carry on the game on both the radio and the Tune-In app.