For the first time all season, UConn men’s hockey will have its entire roster healthy and available to play. The news couldn’t come at a better time as the Huskies take on No. 1 Boston College in a home-and-home series this weekend.
Kale Howarth is finally recovered from an upper-body injury that forced him out for four games, while Vladislav Firstov and Yan Kuznetsov returned to the lineup last weekend after the World Juniors Tournament kept them away for seven games. UConn also brought in highly-touted signee Ryan Tverberg after the first semester ended, further bolstering the team’s depth up top.
However, the surplus of talent means head coach Mike Cavanaugh will have some tough decisions to make about the lineup. The Huskies can only dress 12 forwards (they have 16 on the roster), six defensemen (eight on the roster), an extra skater, and three goalies.
“I always think that’s the hardest thing about our sport. I think we’re the only sport that has to put people in the stands,” Cavanaugh said. “You can have 100 guys on the football team on the sideline, baseball they all dress and basketball a bunch of guys dress that never play but for us we have to put some guys in the stands and it’s always difficult and a lot of it has to do sometimes with the matchup of the team we’re playing or who’s playing well at that time. A lot of things go into it.”
Some choices will be easier than others, though. John Wojciechowski and Gavin Puskar only suited up when injuries or absences cut down on UConn’s depth. As for goalies, Matt Pasquale has been inactive every game.
The bigger questions will be which forward Howarth bumps off the line sheet and which defensemen get the nod.
Most of UConn’s forwards are locked in, meaning there won’t be a drastic overhaul of the lines with Howarth back. On the surface, he should replace Cassidy Bowes and Eric Linell, who each played in one game against UNH last weekend. However, Cavanaugh also pointed out the importance of balance throughout the lineup, which means it may not be as simple as a one-for-one switch.
“If you have a lot of balance up and down your lineup, you’re not so worried about a mismatch out there and I think we have a lot of that on our team,” he said. “You try to mix and match and create the best lineup you can that’s going to be most effective for you night in and night out.”
Howarth is a staple at left wing whereas Bowes and Linell played center and right wing last weekend, respectively. Though UConn values versatility, the ensuing shuffle could result in someone else being dropped if they don’t fit in as well in another position.
The defense is more complicated. The Huskies’ eight defensemen have all contributed this season and the Huskies’ last series against UNH is the perfect example.
Just a few weeks ago, Cavanaugh called Harrison Rees and Roman Kinal “our most consistent, solid performers all season long.” But last Saturday, Rees didn’t dress while Kinal filled the extra skater spot. Meanwhile, Ryan Wheeler (inactive) and Jake Flynn (extra skater) replaced them as the third pairing on and played key roles with Wheeler scoring his first career goal and Flynn racking up three assists.
“We have a lot of good players,” Cavanaugh explained after the 8-3 win. “It’s a good problem to have when you have a lot of good players. There’s going to be competition and night in and night out we might see different guys in the lineup.”
With so little daylight between each player, it’s hard to Cavanaugh and his staff to make a wrong decision with the defensive pairings, though someone will be undeservedly dropped. However, it wouldn’t be a surprise for all eight players to get a chance over the course of the two games, similar to what happened against UNH.
But regardless of what the lineup will look like, UConn will be as well-equipped to face the No. 1 team in the country as it can be.
UConn wasn’t originally slated to play top-ranked BC this weekend and in a normal season, it typically wouldn’t have seen the Eagles again until the postseason. However, Hockey East changed its format again, announcing that it will begin scheduling games on a week-to-week basis “to create as much variety and parity in the schedule as possible” in the final seven weeks of the regular season.
That means no team will know who they’ll face until the Monday or Tuesday before the game but it also removes the constant uncertainty that’s surrounded the schedule this season.
“It’s probably better so you’re not speculating,” Cavanaugh said. “‘Because we have a schedule and we’re supposed to be playing Merrimack this weekend, is that series going to happen?’ or ‘We’ve already played UMass and they’re on our schedule, what’s going to happen?’ So we’ll just wait until Tuesday and when the schedule comes out we’ll play whoever’s on it.”
UConn would be justified in feeling a little hard-done by the conference, though. Not only will the Huskies play a second series against BC, their first seven games were all against ranked opponents. UConn is also one of just two schools that hasn’t faced one of Maine, Merrimack, or Vermont yet this season, the three worst teams in the conference. The other is BU, who has only played four games total and will host the Black Bears this weekend.
But Cavanaugh isn’t worried about that. With every team making the Hockey East playoffs this season, he isn’t as concerned with point totals (or percentages) as he normally would be. Instead, he’s just taking the season one weekend at a time.
“Someone said to me this week, ‘Oh, you have to play Boston College again, you’ve already played them.’ I’m like ‘It’s great, we get another chance to play Boston College,’” Cavanaugh said. “If you go into it and say ‘Oh yeah, that’s terrible we have to play them. Why do we have to play them because we’ve already played them?’ You don’t have a chance of winning the hockey game, you’ve already talked yourself out of it. We can’t control those things.
“All teams are getting into the (conference) tournament and the team that’s been able to handle this mentally — the mentally toughest team throughout the year — is gonna have the best chance to win the tournament this year.”
As of Tuesday morning, everyone is healthy and available for this weekend.
How to watch
Puck drop for both games is scheduled for 4:00 p.m. Friday night’s game at Boston College will be aired on SportsLive for those out of state while the CW20 will broadcast Saturday’s clash from Freitas Ice Forum in Connecticut.