It’s been three years since UConn men’s hockey last played a playoff game.
In 2017-18, the Huskies used a seven-game win streak to catapult themselves into fifth place — their highest finish in Hockey East to that point — and set up a showdown with fourth seed BU. UConn couldn’t carry that magic into the postseason, however, as its season ended with a pair of one-goal defeats.
The Huskies missed out on the playoffs during a 12-20-2 rebuilding campaign the following year but bounced back to finish fifth once again in 2019-20. UConn was about to get on the bus to head to Maine for a Hockey East quarterfinal game against the Black Bears when the season was shockingly canceled due to COVID-19.
So now, barring something disastrous, the Huskies are set to return to the postseason on Sunday against Providence in the quarterfinals, where they hope to snap a streak that dates back even further than their playoff drought: UConn has still yet to win a postseason game in Hockey East, going 0-8 since joining the conference ahead of the 2014-15 season.
That first year, the ninth-seed Huskies were swept by eighth-seed UNH on the road by a combined five goals. The next season, UConn hosted UVM but dropped two one-goal games. For the third year in a row, the Huskies found themselves in the 8-9 game but were blown away by Northeastern, 3-1 and 6-2. Their last playoff appearance was the aforementioned series at BU.
A lot has changed for UConn since those early years in Hockey East, however. For instance, this is the Huskies’ most talent-laden squad ever with a program-record nine NHL Draft picks on the roster. The Huskies had just eight total players taken in the draft prior to 2017.
During those four seasons in which UConn made the playoffs, the Huskies went just 1-7-1 with a -19 goal differential (a deficit of 2.1 goals per game). Even though they finished next to each of those teams in the standings, they were clearly a step below. This season, UConn won two out of three matchups with Providence with each side scoring seven goals.
This year’s team will have one major disadvantage compared to those earlier squads. Due to the pandemic, Hockey East changed the playoff format from best-of-three in the first round and quarterfinals to single elimination.
“If you win, you move on and if you lose, you’re out,” head coach Mike Cavanaugh said.
Now, the entire season comes down to one game. A win means UConn lives on to play another day. If they lose, the Huskies drop below .500 and become ineligible for the NCAA Tournament, ending their season in the process. They would also have to wait another entire year to earn their first postseason win.
While there’s a lot riding on Sunday’s game, Cavanaugh doesn’t want his team to worry about any of it.
“We’re just looking like this is another hockey game,” he said. “I don’t think you can look at this as like, ‘Oh God, this is a playoff game and if we lose our season could be over.’ Now all of a sudden, you’re surrendering to the outcome.”
Only three players — seniors Adam Karashik, Brian Rigali, and Zac Robbins — have played in a postseason game for UConn. For as much experience as the Huskies’ core has, this will be their first taste of the Hockey East playoffs. Because of that, Cavanaugh isn’t sure how his team will react.
“I guess we’ll find out Sunday, right?” he said with a laugh.
That means leading up to the game, Cavanaugh will need to walk the fine line between acknowledging the higher stakes that come with the playoffs without spooking his team. To do that, he’s making sure the preparation is the same as it has been all season long.
“I don’t think there’s any difference in how we prepare,” he said. “We’ve been playing pretty much the same way all year long. I don’t think it makes sense or it would behoove us to completely change our style of play at this point of the season. You dance with the girl you brought, right?”
Still, there’s a unique feel to playoff games. While UConn might not change the way they prepare or play a different style, they still need to be ready to handle both the good and the bad that comes their way.
“I think we’re a team all year long that has shown that we’re pretty resilient and I think you have to be able to be resilient in the playoffs,” Cavanaugh said. “You’ve got to understand that you’re going to be playing great hockey teams and the momentum is going to shift back and forth, and you got to be mentally strong be able to handle the momentum surges — sometimes from their team or from your team. You have to be able to stay even keel, be resilient, and continue to play your style of hockey.”
UConn’s men’s hockey team isn’t alone in terms of postseason struggles, however. If anything, it’s a right of passage for UConn’s best programs. In the ‘90s, Jim Calhoun’s reputation was that he couldn’t get to the Final Four — until the Huskies made it in 1999 and won their first national championship. UConn women’s basketball went one-and-done in their first two NCAA Tournament appearances before breaking through in 1991 and going all the way to the Final Four.
If past history is any indication, UConn men’s hockey is primed to go on a run once it finally gets that first victory in the Hockey East playoffs. And to do that, they’re treating their matchup with Providence like any other game.