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UConn men’s hockey season in review: Huskies take major step forward

The Huskies completed their best season in their Hockey East era despite the lack of a postseason.

Ian Bethune/The UConn Blog

There are a lot of ways to measure success in a season: Using statistics, comparing back to preseason expectations and of course, using the all-powerful eye test. Pick any of them and UConn men’s hockey enjoyed its best campaign ever in its Hockey East Era before the rug was pulled out from under the season thanks to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Statistically, the Huskies finished the season with a 15-15-4 overall record and a 12-10-2 mark in conference play — their first .500 overall record since joining Hockey East and the first time with a winning record in the conference. The team finished fifth place in the standings — tied for its best finish — though it didn’t get to make more history in the playoffs. UConn also finished 33rd in Pairwise (essentially RPI), beating out the 2016-17 and 2017-18 squads (34) for the top mark in program history.

In terms of preseason expectations, the Huskies were picked to finish in ninth place — third to last. But for head coach Mike Cavanaugh, he sets his expectations before the season “for a standard of play and a standard of behavior when you’re away from the rink.” While that’s a more subjective measure, UConn routinely competed with some of the best teams in the country with four wins over ranked opponents.

Finally, there’s the eye test. Despite the lack of playoffs, it’s hard for Cavanaugh to look back on the season as anything other than an unqualified success.

“It was probably the most consistent year since I’ve been at Connecticut that we’ve had where we were not only competitive but played well enough to win hockey games,” he said. “It wasn’t like we needed 45 saves to win a hockey game. We were playing really, really well night in and night. That’s something, for me as the coach of this program, is something very encouraging.”

Initially, UConn stumbled out of the gates. In the season opener, the Huskies gave up the game-tying goal to Sacred Heart with three seconds left and had to settle for a tie. They followed that with disheartening losses against Army and RPI at home — briefly halted with a dominant win in the return trip to RPI — before a disappointing weekend split against Merrimack.

Then came the Boston College weekend. In two games, the Eagles out-scored the Huskies 11-1 and throughly embarrassed UConn from start to finish. The Huskies were outplayed in every facet of the game and didn’t look like they belonged on the ice with BC.

However, those games proved to be a turning point in the season. The series lit a fire under UConn and it responded by outplaying then-No. 12 UMass Lowell for 3 of 4 points the weekend after which sparked a 5-1-1 run through the end of the first half — including a four-game win streak to head into the midseason break.

“After that BC weekend, we played a lot of consistent hockey,” Cavanaugh said. “We really played really, really well against UMass Lowell and Providence, Miami and Vermont before the break.”

But when the second half began, the Huskies appeared to fall back into their early-season form. They tied a terrible St. Lawrence team (before beating them in a shootout for tournament purposes) before blowing a late lead against Dartmouth in the Ledyard Classic. UConn then got blasted 5-2 by Northeastern and 6-2 by Merrimack to open the second half with a four-game winless streak.

At the time, Cavanaugh said his team moped and didn’t handle the adversity they faced well. But with the season now in the rearview mirror, the coach admitted there was a lot more going on than he lead on at the time. A nasty bout of the flu and other nasty illnesses ripped through the locker room — and with the current health crisis, Cavanaugh half-wondered if it was more than the flu.

The fact that the team was hit hard with an illness isn’t a secret considering players were missing games left and right due to illness. But it left a sizable impact on how his team performed, which Cavanaugh wouldn’t admit during the season.

“When we came back from the break, we were hit pretty hard,” he said. “Tomas (Vomacka) was sick, (Benjamin) Freeman was sick, we got hit. A lot of us were really sick during that time and we didn’t have a lot of energy. I think Freeman missed a game, Sasha (Payusov) missed a game, Tomas obviously did and we struggled those first four games back.”

Entering a one-game weekend against Providence, UConn sat tied for seventh place with 10 points. The conference didn’t do the Huskies any favors with their schedule, either, with just three of 11 remaining games at the XL Center.

But once UConn got its health situation under control, it found its first half form again and finished strong with an 8-4 record in conference play.

It started with a strong effort against Providence that ultimately resulted in a loss before a pair of tough, morale-boosting wins against Maine and Northeastern. That sparked a five-game win streak in conference — snapped only by an overtime loss at Maine with less than a minute left.

The momentum was slightly stemmed by a tough weekend in the inaugural Connecticut Ice Festival, where the Huskies dropped both games against Quinnipiac and Yale despite outplaying both teams.

But for the 2019-20 squad, its moment of arrival was undoubtedly the weekend against BU.

In the Friday night meeting at the XL Center, UConn pulled Vomacka and tied the game with 56 seconds left to play. Just 19 seconds into overtime, Payusov buried a cross-ice pass from Freeman to give the Huskies the win and send the crowd into a frenzy.

The next night in Boston, UConn scored four times in the third period — 20 minutes which Cavanaugh called the best in program history — to earn an impressive sweep of the Terriers and give the Huskies 24 points — tying them for the most in their Hockey East Era.

Though the Huskies were playing well entering that weekend, it proved that they weren’t just a latest team to get hot and win a stretch of games. The sweep showed UConn was a legit competitor near the top of the Hockey East standings.

The following game, UConn kept the fireworks going with arguably its most thrilling victory in program history by scoring two goals in a minute and a half to steal a 3-2 victory from UMass in front of 6,666 at the XL Center.

The Huskies couldn’t carry the momentum from that into a sweep on Saturday night though, falling 4-3 in Amherst. In the season finale, UConn lost home ice after dropping a tough 3-1 decision to UMass Lowell.

UConn was all geared up and ready to go to Maine for the quarterfinals of the Hockey East Playoffs, but concerns over the COVID-19 crisis delayed the team’s departure as it awaited final word about whether or not the tournament would even be played. Soon, the conference fell in line with the rest of the sports and cancelled its postseason.

After the news broke, Cavanaugh expressed his disappointment — especially for his senior class.

“I feel really for our seniors,” he said at the time. “I thought that they had such a great year and were looking forward to the playoffs and trying to make a run to get to the Boston Garden and win a Hockey East trophy and to have that taken aways is heartbreaking for those guys.”

UConn didn’t have the opportunity to win its first Hockey East playoff and make a run to the TD Garden. But the 2019-20 was supposed to be the year-before-the-year, which is exactly what unfolded. The Huskies youth and inexperience showed through often but they also showed a glimpse of their potential too.

The program established its identity as a blue-collar program, but one that can also mix in high-end talent. This past season built a strong foundation to build off and despite some big losses the senior class, next year projects to be a breakthrough campaign for UConn men’s hockey.