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Notebook: UConn men’s hockey set to return to the XL Center for the first time in 582 days

Also, Mike Cavanaugh pushes for Sacred Heart to join Hockey East and reveals a couple of the Huskies’ lines for Saturday.

Ian Bethune/The UConn Blog

When UConn men’s hockey takes the ice on Saturday against Sacred Heart, 582 days will have passed since the Huskies’ last game at the XL Center. That night, 6,666 fans packed into the downtown arena to see UConn take down UMass thanks to a pair of goals in the final 90 seconds by Marc Gatcomb and Kale Howarth.

Since then, more than half of the Huskies roster has turned over and after they were forced to play every home game at Freitas Ice Forum due to the pandemic, only 13 of UConn’s 28 players have ever suited up at the XL Center.

As a result, the team practiced in Hartford on Friday so the new players can get familiar.

“It’s such a big building... when you play in the Freitas [Ice Forum], it just seems like things happen so much faster and you don’t have time and space to make plays when, I believe, the Freitas’ [ice surface] might even be a touch bigger than what the XL Center is,” Cavanaugh said. “But because the ceilings are so high and the building is so massive, it just feels like you have more time.”

While Freitas Ice Forum’s location on campus made it easy for the players to head straight to their dorms and apartments after games instead of having to take a 40-minute bus ride back to Storrs, its location was the only benefit.

“Our locker room setup [at XL is] a lot nicer. It gives the players a lounge where they can relax before the games. The training room’s right off the locker room,” Cavanaugh said. “There’s so much more space. ... From the amenities standpoint, it is a much nicer place for us to play.”

The return to the XL Center also means the return of fans. Last season, UConn played all its games in mostly empty rinks with only a limited number of friends, family, and staffers allowed in. Cavanaugh hopes to see a raucous crowd at the XL Center on Saturday afternoon.

“We’re excited to get back there,” he said. “It’s such a great environment for college hockey when we have that building crowded.”

Sacred Heart to Hockey East?

Since Notre Dame left the conference in 2017, Hockey East has featured just 11 schools on the men’s side which leaves the schedule unbalanced. While rumors and speculation are constant about a potential 12th team, Cavanaugh threw his support behind Sacred Heart.

“This is just my personal opinion — I don’t know if the rest of Hockey East shares this opinion — I’d love to see them come into Hockey East,” he said of the Pioneers. “I think that would give us a natural rival and a more of a presence in this state, certainly with their building (a new, on-campus hockey arena is set to open in late 2022), it’s going to be first-class. It’s going to be as nice as most of the buildings in our league and I think they’d be a great addition to our league.”

Setting the lines

While some final decisions still need to be made, UConn has one line set for Saturday.

Marc Gatcomb, Kevin O’Neil, and Carter Turnbull will play together and as will Vladislav Firstov, Artem Shlaine and Nick Capone were supposed to form another line, but Capone is out with an upper body injury.

“We like Kevin with the two older kids. We thought those three kids had some nice chemistry and they balance each other out pretty well,” Cavanaugh explained. “Carter certainly scores, Marc has been playing some of the best hockey I’ve seen him play. He’s a big, strong, powerful forward and Kevin can do both. He can score and he can distribute so we like that chemistry with that line.

“It’s very similar with Artem’s line, too. I think that Vlad and Artem complement each other well and Nick brings a heavy presence to that line.”

Jonny Evans and Jachym Kondelik will make up part of another but their line-mate is still to be determined. We know it won’t be Hudson Schandor, as he’s heading up another line according to Cavanaugh. That leaves Cassidy Bowes, Chase Bradley, Gavin Puskar, Sasha Teleguine, Ryan Tverberg, and John Wojciechowski still unaccounted for with four more spots to fill.

Of course, these are just the initial pairings. The lines are guaranteed to change as the year goes on — and some adjustments could come quicker than others.

“Now, could that change in the second period on Saturday? Sure. It could actually change tomorrow for all I know,” Cavanaugh laughed. “But right now, those two lines feel pretty good.”

Injury report

Sophomore forward Nick Capone will miss out with an upper body injury.

“It’s not a serious injury but he’s not gonna play tomorrow,” Cavanaugh said.

How to watch

Time: 4:05 p.m.

Location: XL Center, Hartford, CT

Streaming: SportsLive (free)

Radio: None