The end of one year and the start of another is always a time for both reflection and looking forward. UConn men’s hockey coach Mike Cavanaugh did just that during his Zoom call with reporters on New Year's Eve, taking stock of what his team’s done well and what it still needs to work on seven games into the year.
Here are some of the highlights:
This has already been an unprecedented season for the Huskies. The NCAA pushed back its start almost two months and even after Hockey East set a start date, cancelations and postponements were more common than games actually being played.
Before UConn’s first game against UMass, Cavanaugh described the team’s preseason as “fractured.” Even after they played the opening weekend, the Huskies sat for three more weeks due to various issues with their opponents. Cavanaugh credited the team’s seniors, captain Adam Karashik and assistant captains Brian Rigali and Zac Robbins, with keeping everyone focused and on the right track.
“I suspected at the beginning of the year we were going to have pretty good senior leadership and that definitely has shown itself in spades. That’s been fantastic,” Cavanaugh said. “Above and beyond everything else, with how crazy our schedule’s been and having to deal with quarantines and kids not being able to practice and some days only having nine people in practice for them to be able to keep everybody mentally in it. I’ve been really impressed with that.”
Tomas Vomacka’s improvement
As a junior, Vomacka has elevated his game for the Huskies. If the season ended today, his 2.81 goals against average would be ninth-best in the program history. That number should improve as UConn gets into an easier portion of its schedule.
Cavanaugh often raves about Vomacka’s worth ethic and demeanor, so he’s never surprised by the junior’s success. However, Vomacka has a better understanding of the ins and outs of the position now instead of strictly being a shot-stopper.
“He’s learning to become a more efficient goaltender,” Cavanaugh said. “I think he relied so much on his natural ability and his athleticism his first couple of years here and now he’s really learning how to be efficient, cut angles, and avoid creating rebounds that create second and third chance opportunities. So there were some games where he would have 30 saves but he probably should have had 18. He kicked a few back out that created two or three more shots. I think he’s doing a much better job controlling rebounds and being more efficient in the net.”
While the early days of the Huskies’ Hockey East tenure often featured Rob Nichols standing on his head in goal to keep games close, Vomacka doesn’t have many highlight-reel saves to his name this season. He’s had a few spectacular moments but they’re few and far in between. But to Cavanaugh, that’s a good thing.
“If we’re playing really well as a team and he’s playing well, he shouldn’t have to make spectacular saves, right? Occasionally you’re gonna have a breakdown, the guy is gonna fall down, a guy’s gonna whiff on the puck to create a 2-on-1 or a great scoring chance,” he said. “That happens in all hockey games, doesn’t matter what level you play. And that’s why you have a goaltender.”
If there’s a single defining characteristic for UConn this season, it would be the Huskies’ old-school, black-and-blue style of play. They aren’t afraid to get physical, finish checks, and throw their weight around. In particular, guys like Rigali, Nick Capone, Marc Gatcomb, and Kale Howarth have set the tone.
Cavanaugh believes that type of physicality isn’t just preferred, it’s necessary.
“I don’t think you see any team, very rarely at a high level, win just on skill alone,” he said. “You gotta have some bite to your game and you have to have some physicality. It’s an emotional, physical game and you gotta bring that on a consistent basis to be successful. So it’s something that we’ve tried to make a staple of our program year in and year out. This year you’re seeing some of the fruits of earlier years' hard work.”
Though UConn always tries to play a physical game — especially since it's often out-matched talent-wise in Hockey East — but now it finally has the personnel to really leave a mark.
“I don’t think it’s anything revolutionary to our program. It’s something that we’ve always preached,” Cavanaugh said. “I think this year maybe we have some kids that’ve gotten a lot stronger since they’ve been here and they feel more comfortable playing that style of hockey and we’ve brought in some kids that really enjoy playing that way.
UConn has only played one series that was on its original schedule — the week against Boston College. The Huskies’ first two series against Vermont and Maine, respectively, were postponed after both schools paused all winter sports. The Huskies were supposed to play one game against Boston University prior to facing the Eagles but that didn’t happen after the Terriers shut down due to a positive COVID test.
Then, UConn added three games around Christmas against UMass Lowell, UMass, and Providence — all of which were played during the week as opposed to the weekend. It's been a chaotic start for the Huskies, to put it lightly.
“Seems like every day is a weekend,” Cavanaugh joked. “I don’t know one day from the next honestly.”
As a result of all that, the coach is still trying to figure his team out.
“I still, though, don’t have a great feel yet. There hasn’t been a rhythm to our season,” he said. “I know what kind of team we are — I think we work hard, we’re physical, we compete, we’ve got a good skill level. I don’t think we’ve come close to reaching our ceiling and I’m hoping that we can string together a bunch of games here in the month of January and I’d be able to answer that question a lot better for you February 1st.”
UConn has spent a lot of time in the penalty box. The Huskies average 5.0 penalty kills per game, tied for sixth-most in the nation. While Cavanaugh would prefer to keep the penalties down, he explained that some are acceptable, even if they’re not ideal.
“The boarding and the charging, those you can live with. You’re just playing hard and sometimes you get penalties for hitting too hard. That happens,” he said. “There’s the occasional accidental trip that happens. You gotta be able to kill those penalties off.”
In its last game against UMass, UConn committed six penalties — two of which shouldn’t have happened, according to Cavanaugh. As an example, he explained that he wants players to go into hits with only one hand on their stick, otherwise they give referees the chance to call stick penalties like cross-checking or hooking.
Cavanaugh knows penalties are part of the game but wants to avoid those that could be prevented by skating harder or keeping emotions in check.
“It’s the retaliation penalties. It’s the lazy stick penalties. Those are the ones we want to try to avoid,” he said. “If we can keep it under four — three to four power plays from the other team a game — I think that’s pretty good. Six to eight minutes a game, if you’re averaging that, that that’s not too bad.”
For as well as UConn has played at times this season, the results aren’t there yet for the 2-4-1 Huskies. Some of that can be attributed to UConn’s tough opening schedule — it’s faced seven ranked opponents in seven games — but it still could’ve earned more points from those matchups with better special teams play.
The Huskies’ penalty kill isn’t terrible, sitting at 32nd in the nation, though there’s certainly room for improvement. The power play has been abysmal, though. UConn has only scored twice with an extra skater in 36 chances — a 5.6 conversion percentage.
Though the Huskies probably won’t compete for the Hockey East regular-season championship (that’s BC’s to lose), it could still contend for a top-four finish and have a chance to make a run in the conference tournament — if they can improve their special teams.
“It’s still being more consistent on our special teams,” Cavanaugh said. “I think that’s going to be an underlying theme all year long — if we can be consistent on our special teams, it’s going to really help this team because I think we’re a pretty good five-on-five team. It’s just special teams wise, we’ve got to be winning more special teams battles throughout a game than losing them throughout the course of the year. That’s going to be a telling statistic for us this season.”
Kale Howarth is out this weekend after suffering an upper-body injury against Providence.
“We’re hoping to get him back next week,” Cavanaugh said. “We’re just playing it day by day.”
Though Howarth has been one of UConn’s best players this season and is involved in a lot of what the Huskies do, Cavanaugh is hoping his absence will be an opportunity for someone else to prove themselves.
“Am I disappointed we don’t have Kale? Of course I am. He’s an excellent player. He’s a big part of our team,” he said. “But I’m really looking forward to see who can step up in his spot tomorrow. That’s something I’m excited to see.”
Eric Linell will be back after leaving the Providence game with an injury. Ryan Tverberg is also out of quarantine and has practiced with the team twice as of Thursday.
How to watch
Both games this weekend are scheduled for a 4 p.m. start. The Friday night game at New Hampshire will air on NESN for those in New England and on SportsLive for those outside the region. Saturday’s game will be streamed for free on SportsLive.