Two years ago in a series at Alfond Arena in Maine, then-freshman defenseman Harrison Rees committed a turnover with a minute left in overtime that resulted in a game-winning goal, allowing the Black Bears to steal a 1-0 win over UConn.
This past weekend under eerily similar circumstances, Rees avenged his mistake. With just over 30 seconds left in overtime, he hit Hudson Schandor on a break-out pass out of the Huskies’ zone, followed the action, and sent in a rebound to score the game-winner with 21.2 remaining.
“He made the play,” head coach Mike Cavanaugh said on Thursday. “He started the breakout, dished the puck, went to the net, and when Mark (Gatcomb) got it on net, he was able to grab a rebound.”
Going from the goat in 2019-20 to the hero this past weekend shows just how far Rees has come over the last three seasons.
As a freshman, he was mistake-prone, often giving the puck away in bad spots or failing to make the necessary intervention defensively. Rees finished the year tied for the team lead in total penalties, had an even plus-minus, and took the fewest shots (20) of any UConn blueliner.
Now, Rees is one of the Huskies’ best all-around defensemen. While there’s no perfect way to quantify defensive prowess, Rees has a team-high 15 blocked shots in nine games — up from 18 in 21 games (.85 per game) last year and 21 in 34 games (.61 per game) as a freshman — six more than the next closest player and tied for third-most in Hockey East.
Rees is also +5 on the season, UConn’s fifth-highest mark and the second-best among defensemen.
“The little details that make great defenseman, he’s improved upon and he’s continuing to get better, and blocking shots is certainly one of them,” Cavanaugh said.
While defense has always been the cornerstone of Rees’ game, he’s quietly becoming a contributor on the offensive end as well. He scored twice in the Huskies’ win at Maine on Saturday — the second multi-goal game of his career.
“There’s really no explanation,” Rees said on Saturday with a laugh. “I mean, I gotta start being a little more consistent I think, and maybe find a couple more.”
Rees also has 16 shots, most by a UConn defenseman alongside Carter Berger.
“He’s very good at the offensive blue line and getting his puck down,” Cavanaugh said.
The junior has also been one of the best players on the Huskies’ roster at out-passes, something which helps both offensively and defensively but doesn’t show up in the box score.
“There’s no stats for breakouts out of your zone. I think he does that as well as any of our defensemen,” Cavanaugh said. “He’s able to make that initial pass. It breaks us out of our zone.”
While Rees isn’t lighting the world on fire — he has just two goals and one assist — he’s been steady, a trait which is emblematic of UConn’s entire defensive corps.
The Huskies don’t have any superstars on the blue line, but they make up for it with consistency. When all seven non-freshmen defensemen are healthy, UConn doesn’t have a weak link.
As a result, UConn’s defense has been solid, they don’t have a shutout but they also haven’t given up more than three goals in regulation. They rank 20th (out of 59) nationally at 2.44 goals per game and nine of the teams ahead of them have played fewer contests.
So just as Rees is finally coming into his own, the rest of the defensive corps — three of whom are also juniors — is as well. For a UConn team built on the strength of its forwards, that’s a positive sign moving forward.
After missing the last four games with an unknown injury, defenseman Jake Flynn could return this weekend.
“I think we’ll know today after practice,” Cavanaugh said on Thursday. “He has practiced this week and we’ll see how he practices today but I’m hoping we can get him back in the lineup soon.”
Aside from Flynn, UConn is mostly healthy.
“Everyone’s been practicing this week,” the coach said. “As of right now, I think everybody’s eligible to play.”
How to watch
When: Friday, Nov. 12 | Saturday, Nov. 13
Time: 7:05 p.m. (Friday), 7:00 p.m. (Saturday)
Where: XL Center, Hartford, CT (Friday), Schneider Arena, Providence, RI (Saturday)
TV/Streaming: CW20 (Friday), SportsLive (both days)
Radio: 97.9 ESPN (Friday)