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UConn men’s hockey’s first half was successful, but more still to be desired

The Huskies’ first half was the best in their Hockey East history, even if it ended earlier than expected.

Ian Bethune/The UConn Blog

UConn men’s hockey is into the winter break following the most successful first half in program history. The Huskies are 8-6-0 — their most wins ever at this point in the calendar — despite nine of 14 games coming on the road. They’ve played good, consistent hockey and haven’t showed many weak spots.

The biggest disappointment has nothing to do with the team’s play. UConn’s last four games were postponed because of a COVID outbreak in the program, sending the Huskies into the break two weeks earlier than expected.

But as a whole, it’s hard for head coach Mike Cavanaugh to be anything but pleased.

“I thought we played pretty well in the first half and were playing really well right before COVID hit,” he told The UConn Blog. “There was only one game I wasn’t sure we played quite to our identity (the loss to BC), but we played nine of 14 games on the road. We had a winning road schedule and we’re in the middle of the pack in Hockey East with games in hand on some teams. We’re well-positioned right now for the second half.”

With that, let’s look back at how the first half unfolded.

By the numbers

Record: 8-6-0

Rankings: Seventh in Hockey East (14 points in nine games) | 20th nationally in Pairwise

Goals scored: 44 | Goals allowed: 35

Power play percentage: 11.1 | Penalty kill percentage: 84.7

Most goals: 9 — Ryan Tverberg

Most assists: 7 — Marc Gatcomb, Jachym Kondelik

Most points: 16 — Ryan Tverberg

Highest +/-: +9 — Jarrod Gourley

Most blocks: 22 — Harrison Rees

Recap

UConn opened the regular season with a 6-3 win over Sacred Heart — the Huskies’ first victory over their in-state rivals since joining Hockey East. Vladislav Firstov found the back of the net just 1:05 in on the team’s first shot of the year and UConn eventually added a pair of empty-netters to seal the victory.

The next weekend, the Huskies opened Hockey East play with a split against Boston University — first a tough 2-1 loss at home in which they led for 54 minutes followed by a decisive 5-1 win on the road. UConn hit its first rough patch when it was swept at Ohio State but it recovered with four straight victories on the road at Northeastern, Dartmouth and defeating Maine twice.

The Huskies returned to the XL Center for the first time in over a month when they hosted Boston College on Nov. 12, but dropped another close decision after giving up goals at the end of the second and third periods. The next night, UConn had its worst performance of the first half in a 6-4 defeat at Providence that wasn’t as close as the scoreline indicated.

UMass Lowell handed the Huskies their third-straight loss in a 3-0 final at the Tsongas Center before Cavanaugh’s squad recovered with a hard-fought 2-1 win the next day — the team’s best victory to this point in the season.

While we didn’t know it at the time, UConn closed the first half with a 6-1 rout of Colgate on Nov. 27. Though the Huskies had series against Merrimack and AIC left on their schedule before the winter break, they were both postponed after a COVID outbreak swept through the team.

Position Review

Forwards

Ian Bethune/The UConn Blog

Coming into the year, UConn’s biggest strength looked to be its forward group.

With a strong senior class of Jonny Evans — an All-American the year prior — Marc Gatcomb, Jachym Kondelik, Carter Turnbull and Yale transfer Kevin O’Neil to pair with junior Vladislav Firstov, promising underclassmen in sophomore Cassidy Bowes, Nick Capone, Hudson Schandor, Artem Shlaine and Ryan Tverberg and two well-regarded freshmen in Chase Bradley and Sasha Teleguine, the Huskies had one of the deepest frontlines in Hockey East — on paper, at least.

While UConn has been a good offensive team, it hasn’t been as explosive as expected. The Huskies’ 3.14 goals per game ranks 24th in the nation and third in Hockey East, but it feels like there’s another level for them to unlock.

Much of that is because of three players: Evans, Firstov and Turnbull. Evans has just two goals and four assists, Firstov — the most talented forward on UConn’s roster — is tied for second on the team with five goals but has just two goals in his last 11 games while Turnbull — who led the way with 12 goals in 2019-20 — has just two so far this year.

If those three get going, the Huskies’ offense has the potential to be one of the best in the entire nation — especially with how the rest of the forwards are playing.

Tverberg has been the team’s breakout star with nine goals and seven assists in 14 games after recording just four goals and three assists in the same number of contests last year. At times, he’s single-handedly carried the offense on his back — he had one stretch where he scored in five straight games — and hasn’t been afraid to use his body, whether it be to block shots or make checks.

Behind Tverberg, Gatcomb (five goals, seven assists), Kondelik (three goals, nine assists), and Schandor (one goal, nine assists) have all been steady contributors while O’Neil (one goal, five assists) has been an important addition despite his limited production.

Meanwhile, both Capone and Shlaine have made impressive leaps as sophomores. Capone has four goals and four assists after finishing his freshman year with one goal and four assists while Shlaine has seven points (one goal, six assists) in 14 games after recording nine (one goal, eight assists) in 20 games last year.

Even if the offense hasn’t been as good as expected, UConn still has a strong, deep group of forwards — one that still has plenty of room to improve.

Defensemen

Ian Bethune/The UConn Blog

UConn’s blue liners have performed on-par with preseason expectations. There’s no superstars in this group but they’re all steady, two-way contributors.

The biggest surprise has been the emergence of Harrison Rees. He has three goals — more than Evans, Turnbull and Shlaine, to name a few — has been consistently lauded by teammates and coaches for his ability to make breakout passes. He also has a team-high 22 blocks. Rees and Ryan Wheeler have made up the Huskies’ best defensive pairing.

Carter Berger and John Spetz have been UConn’s most offensive-minded defensemen. Spetz has seven points (one goal, six assists) while Berger has excelled at getting the puck on net with 25 shots — both of which lead the d-men.

On the other end, Jarrod Gourley and Roman Kinal are the lockdown defenders. They each only have one goal and one assist but Gourley leads the team with a +9 rating while Kinal has consistently made plays in the defensive zone.

The last of the seven main defenseman, Jake Flynn, is off to a rough start. Though he’s an important member of the rotation in back and typically plays as the Huskies’ extra skater, he missed five games with an injury, has one point and a team-worst -4. Hopefully, the extended time off will allow Flynn to reset and have a more impactful second half.

Meanwhile, the freshmen defensemen haven’t played. Jake Veilleux was on the bench for one game but never got on the ice while Aidan Metcalfe has not dressed.

Goaltender

Ian Bethune/The UConn Blog

Darion Hanson has monopolized the goaltender position, starting every game and playing every possible minute between the pipes. He owns a 2.35 goals against average and .923 save percentage which rank 24th and 14th in the country, respectively.

While the Union transfer was expected to earn the bulk of the time when he won the starting job, even Cavanaugh is a little surprised at how the spot has panned out to this point.

“[Hanson] was the only one with college experience of the three goaltenders we have in the program, so it didn’t surprise me that he won the job in the beginning,” the coach said. “He’s just played so well. It’s been hard to take him out of the net.”

UConn also hasn’t played more than two games in a single week, so Hanson hasn’t needed a rest, either. Still, Cavanaugh didn’t close the door on either freshman Logan Terness or junior Matt Pasquale seeing time once the calendar flips to 2022.

“Logan’s finally healthy. He was hurt there for a month so he’s back healthy,” the coach said. “I think they’re both progressing and certainly capable of playing games in the second half.”

Special teams

UConn’s power play and penalty kill units have been polar opposites. The Huskies’ power play has been toothless, scoring on just five of 45 opportunities (11.1 percent) with only a few breakout performances to speak of.

On the other hand, the penalty kill has been fantastic, surviving 39 of 46 penalties. That number is even more impressive considering five of the goals allowed came in two games — at Northeastern and at Providence.

UConn has also killed off games well. It hasn’t allowed a goal in a 6-on-5 situation in the final minutes and has four empty-netters to its name. The Huskies haven’t converted after pulling their goalie either, but they haven’t been in that situation all too often, either.

Lastly, UConn has done well in its two overtime periods. At Ohio State, the Huskies dominated 3-on-3 play, created every type of scoring chance imaginable and were unlucky to give up a goal in the final seconds. At Maine, UConn won with 21.2 seconds left in the extra period courtesy of a sequence in the last 30 seconds, capped off by a Rees walk-off score.

In the second half, the Huskies’ need their power play to produce more goals if they want to earn a top-four finish in Hockey East and win in the playoffs. But overall, UConn’s special teams units have been fantastic and have played an important part in the team’s early success.