UConn men’s hockey has five games left in the first half of the season before the winter break and to this point, it’s been a mostly successful year. The Huskies are 7-6-0 (5-4-0 Hockey East), have avoided bad losses and are coming off a split with No. 15 UMass Lowell in which they played some of their best hockey of the season.
That’s not to say UConn has checked off every box through 13 games, though. The Huskies, despite a bevy of offensive talent, haven’t been an explosive scoring team. Defensively, they’re stout but prone to lapses.
But the biggest deciding factor for this UConn squad has been special teams play.
“I think a strength of our team this year has been 5-on-5 play. I think we’ve been a very good 5-on-5 team,” head coach Mike Cavanaugh said. “I’d like to see our special teams get better. I think that we’ve gotta make a push there. If we’re going to be a team that wants to win in the playoffs, we’ve gotta be a team that’s very good on special teams.”
The Huskies’ power play has mostly been a non-factor in terms of offensive production. While it’s played well for stretches, the unit has only found the back of the net four times — two of which came in one game against winless Maine — on 42 chances, a 9.5 conversion percentage.
Too often, UConn hasn’t pressured opponents with the extra skater and will spend the two-minute advantage either retrieving the puck from its own end after a clearance or passing it around the perimeter before settling for a low-percentage shot — or getting no shot off at all.
“On the power play, I want to see more urgency. I want to see more of a 5-on-5 mentality,” Cavanaugh said. “I want to see some more urgency and I want to shoot pucks more. We don’t shoot enough pucks on the power play. 5-on-5, I think we do a pretty good job of shooting, retrieving, kicking it out, shooting again and retrieving — getting multiple shots shifts. We haven’t had that same type of urgency on the power play.”
This past weekend versus UMass Lowell, the Huskies went 0/5 on the power play. UConn spent a lot of time retrieving as well as passing during those advantages but it also didn’t get the puck down to the net, either. That’s how the Huskies have scored most of their power play goals and where players such as Jachym Kondelik, Ryan Tverberg and Hudson Schandor thrive.
Instead, the Huskies just send the puck around the perimeter, allowing opposing penalty kills to stay compact or pressure more aggressively, which can led to turnovers and odd-man rushes the other way.
UConn’s penalty kill has been more reliable, though not infallible. The Huskies have come away unscathed on 37 of 44 opponent power plays, an 84.1 kill percentage. Five of those goals have come in just two games — two at Northeastern and three at Providence. Other than those two blips, UConn’s penalty kill has been a lockdown unit.
The success is a result of strong defensive play that keeps the puck away from the net as well as some timely goaltending from Darion Hanson. The problems arise when the Huskies can’t release the pressure.
“The biggest issue we have on that is when we have failed clears,” Cavanaugh said. “We have the puck on our stick and we don’t get it down 200 feet to get a clear. That’s been an Achilles heel of our penalty kill.”
UConn’s penalty kill will be tested this weekend when it hosts Colgate on Saturday at 4:05 p.m. The Raiders come in with 12 power play goals in 15 games and convert at a 19.7 percent clip.
In order to limit Colgate’s effectiveness with the extra skater, the Huskies will need to first stay out of the box. Although it only averages 4.2 penalties per game — a standard amount — UConn can’t let them pile up.
“I know a recipe for disaster is having a kill six, seven, eight penalties,” Cavanaugh said. “That’s not something that our team typically does. I mean, we’re a physical team and we’ll take penalties here and there. I’m fine killing three or four in a game but we certainly don’t want to have to be killing six or seven against that power play.”
Saturday will also be an opportunity for the Huskies to get their own power play on track. Colgate’s penalty kill is good — 55 of 65 (84.6 percent) — especially considering it gave up six goals in three games earlier this year. Power plays are streaky and one good performance could be enough for UConn to get hot for the final stretch of the semester.
Even though it’s hard to complain much about the Huskies’ results so far this season, they’ve still played below their potential. UConn has its most talented roster ever and should be one of the best teams in Hockey East, but that hasn’t come to fruition yet. Still, it’s early and as we’ve seen in the past, Cavanaugh’s teams often play their best in the second half of the year.
If the Huskies can start building towards their ceiling over these next five games, they’ll be in great position when January and February come around. But in order to get to that point, UConn will need a good showing on Saturday against Colgate.
UConn will get Vladislav Firstov (upper body injury) back after the junior sat out Sunday’s game against UMass Lowell with an upper body injury. Jonny Evans (upper body injury) is unlikely to suit up for a second straight game.
How to watch
Date: Saturday, Nov. 27
Time: 4:05 p.m.
Location: XL Center, Hartford, CT
Streaming: SportsLive (free)