Through three weeks of the season, UConn men’s hockey has underperformed. The Huskies sit below .500 with a 2-3-0 record and are coming off a sweep at the hands of an Ohio State team picked to finish last in the Big Ten Conference.
If there is a saving grace to UConn’s slow start, it’s that the team has been competitive in all three of its losses.
Against BU, the Huskies led for 54 minutes before giving up two late goals en route to a 2-1 defeat. In the series at Ohio State, UConn blew a 3-0 lead over the final 30 minutes, bounced back to dominate the 3-on-3 overtime period but allowed a game-winning goal with 3.6 seconds left. The next night, the Huskies trailed by one entering the final period but eventually lost 3-0 after an empty netter.
The losses — while tough to swallow — haven’t been disheartening.
“I think we’ve played pretty well. There hasn’t been a game where we couldn’t have won the game,” head coach Mike Cavanaugh said. “There hasn’t been a game where it’s been like ‘Oh we had no chance of winning that game. That team was just way better than we were tonight.’ So from that standpoint, that’s encouraging.”
That doesn’t take the Huskies off the hook. UConn had the chance to win every game but needs to clean up some recurring issues. Through five games, the Huskies haven’t come close to playing up to the full potential of the talent on this roster.
“I don’t think collectively we’ve really played our best yet,” Cavanaugh said.
UConn will look to change that when it travels up to Boston for a Tuesday night matchup against the No. 20 Northeastern Huskies. UConn had 10 days to rest up and work on some of the most persistent issues — namely scoring.
A disappearing offense has been the main culprit in each of the three defeats. Against BU, UConn scored once early and then couldn’t find the back of the net the rest of the game. At Ohio State, the Huskies scored three goals on Friday night before the Buckeyes pulled their goalie and the replacement proceeded to shut out UConn over the next 90 minutes of game time.
The offense has had plenty of opportunities — the Huskies recorded at least 30 shots on goal in every loss — they just aren’t executing. As Cavanaugh explained, there are three ways to score: Off the rush, with offensive zone play, and on the power play.
UConn’s offense off the rush has been dangerous all season. Vladislav Firstov has scored a pair of goals in transition and the Huskies had numerous breakaway chances in the second game at Ohio State. While those are some of the most high-percentage chances a team can get, they also aren’t a dependable strategy for a consistent offense.
“A breakaway is great. I love to get them but it’s like relying on the home run ball. If you’re going to just rely on the home run ball, there’s going to be games where you don’t score,” Cavanaugh said. “[If] you don’t score on that breakaway, usually it’s one and done. Now they’re going the other way.”
UConn has really struggled to produce in offensive zone play and during power plays, which can go hand-in-hand. The Huskies are getting plenty of shots on net but often, they haven’t been all that difficult for the goaltender to stop.
“We can’t just rely on the power play to score goals and you can’t just rely on your offensive zone play. You can’t just rely on scoring off the rush,” Cavanaugh said. “You gotta be a team that’s dangerous in all three of those areas, and that’s something that we’re continuing to work on.”
With a bye week over the weekend, Cavanaugh and his staff put an emphasis on doing the dirty work in front of net — taking away the goaltender’s eyes, creating traffic, and generating rebounds.
“It’s being tenacious in front of the net,” Cavanaugh said. “We like to thrive on multiple-shot shifts in the offensive zone.”
As for the power play, UConn has converted on 2/16 opportunities, which ranks 38th out of 50 nationally. The unit has dealt with many of the same issues as the Huskies’ zone play — a lack of traffic or rebounds — and also have some that are specific to the power play.
“I think maybe we’re trying to make the perfect play instead of just getting pucks to the net and grinding it down from there,” Cavanaugh said after the second loss to Ohio State.
Scoring isn’t the only area the Huskies need to improve, either. UConn has been too cavalier with the puck, especially in the neutral zone. It’s something Cavanaugh felt the team needed to improve after the season opener against Sacred Heart and mentioned again ahead of Tuesday’s matchup with Northeastern.
“I thought we had to tighten up a little bit in the neutral zone,” he said. “You never want to give good teams — whether it’s Ohio State, whether it’s Northeastern — lots of speed entering your zone. It gets tough to defend them that way.”
On the plus side, the penalty kill has been excellent, limiting opponents to two goals on 17 chances. Goaltender Darion Hanson, though not perfect, has given them a chance to win every night.
It helps that Cavanaugh is unwaveringly optimistic and has said he focuses more on the performance than the result. As long as the team plays the way it should, the wins will follow. UConn has a deep, talented group of forwards. Cavanaugh wants them to focus on the performance, not the result.
“We have some guys playing pretty well but we just haven’t put up numbers,” he said. “I think we gotta stay away from panicking and trying to cheat to get numbers and be content with continuing to play really well and be committed to that process because it will, in time, benefit us. It will work out.”
“Play the game the right way and the hockey gods will take care of you.”
Forwards Cassidy Bowes (upper-body injury) and Hudson Schandor (leg) along with goaltender Logan Terness (ankle) have already been ruled out of Tuesday’s game. Cavanaugh also mentioned “a couple other guys” will be game-time decisions, though he declined to name those players.
Terness has missed the last four games after turning his ankle in practice on Oct. 6 while Bowes will sit out his third straight game. Schandor left UConn’s most recent game at Ohio State after cutting himself with his own skate but luckily avoided a more serious injury.
“We got very lucky, actually. He cut himself with his own skate so we had to get stitches but fortunately, it just missed an artery,” Cavanaugh said. “I don’t know if he’ll be back for Dartmouth, that could be pretty aggressive. We’ll see. I’m hoping I’ll have him back for Maine.”
How to watch
Date: Tuesday, Oct. 26
Time: 7:00 p.m.
Location: Matthew Arena, Boston, MA