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UConn men’s hockey’s game plan this weekend? “Hit the net”

With the offense struggling, the Huskies need to get back to basics and start making goaltenders work.

Ian Bethune/The UConn Blog

At the start of the season, UConn men’s hockey scored first in its initial four games. But since the winter break, the Huskies have allowed the first goal in each their four games back. As a result, they’re just 1-3-0 to begin the new year.

Head coach Mike Cavanaugh has a simple solution to the problem, though.

“Hit the net,” he said. “You’re not gonna score goals if you’re missing the net.”

As basic as that may seem, UConn has struggled to get the puck to goal in the second half — a problem that started in the first period of the first game against Harvard. The Huskies came out with high energy and a strong forecheck but needed 12 minutes to record their first shot on goal and totaled just two in the opening period.

While UConn recovered with a 23-shot flurry in the second, it again needed seven minutes to get its first shot in the third period. The Huskies eventually fell 6-3.

In the loss to AIC, UConn took 25 shots but had 19 other attempts blocked. Whenever the Huskies got a decent look on goal, the Yellow Jackets seemed to either get a stick on the puck or threw a body in front of keep it away.

Most recently, UConn scored just one goal in a loss to Boston University despite setting up goal-scoring opportunities for all 60 minutes. The Huskies got themselves — and the puck — into dangerous spots but frequently shot it high or wide.

“I think we had five opportunities in grade-A areas where we missed the net,” Cavanaugh said. “When you hit the net, you make the goalie make a save and then there’s a rebound opportunity. When you miss the net, there’s zero shots on goal. When you hit the net, it could be two shots on goal, could be three shots on goal. That’s how you continually wear down teams.”

In general, Cavanaugh prefers to manufacture offense by creating rebounds, taking the goalie’s eyes away or getting tip-ins and re-directs — which is sustainable if done well. Whenever UConn hits a rough patch on offense throughout the course of a season, those things are what the coach preaches to his team.

Relying solely on skill play — picking out a spot and hitting it, trying to deke the goalie — is a dangerous way to live, as UConn has learned in the second half.

“Sometimes it’s just being too cute,” he said when asked why his team is missing the net so much. “When you’re not scoring goals, a good mindset is shoot to five-hole. If you miss five-hole, you’ll probably hit a pad. But when you go top corner and you miss, it goes off the glass and it’s out of the zone.”

If recent history is any indication, UNH is the perfect antidote to the Huskies’ offense woes. In their last six meetings, UConn has scored at least six goals four times — including an 8-3 win on Jan. 16 last season, the most goals scored by a UConn team in two and a half years.

But this is a different Wildcats team. They’re winners of five straight and haven’t given up more than two goals in any game during that span. In fact, UNH hasn’t allowed more than three goals since a 4-1 defeat at Northeastern on Nov. 6.

Senior goaltender Mike Robinson is a big part in that. His goals against average of 2.14 ranks 14th in the nation and has a save percentage of .916 to go with it. Last season, he single-handedly led the Wildcats past UConn with a 36-save performance in which he made a handful of acrobatic stops.

“He goes post-to-post very well. He’s got great size he anticipates. Does a good job blocking, making the first save and controlling his rebounds,” Cavanaugh said of Robinson. “When you get chances to score, you gotta make them count.”

With a total of two goals in its last two games, the Huskies haven’t made their chances count recently. That needs to change this weekend if they plan on reversing their fortunes and getting back in the win column.

It starts with scoring first. UConn is 6-3-0 when it takes the first lead but 3-6-0 when it goes behind. If it can get ahead early, that’ll take the pressure off a struggling offense. Then, the Huskies need to put the puck on net to make life more difficult for Robinson instead of sending in everywhere besides the frame of goal.

UConn has too many quality forwards to have trouble with offense. But to light up the scoreboard, the Huskies first have to get back to the basics.

“Hit the net.”

Bradley suspended

UConn will be without freshman forward Chase Bradley on Friday after he was suspended one game for an incident in the first period against Boston University last Friday.

Bradley, who scored the game-tying goal in the game, has two goals and two assists in 18 games this season.

How to watch

Date: Friday, Jan. 21 | Saturday, Jan. 22

Time: 7:05 p.m. (Friday), 4:05 p.m. (Saturday)

Location: XL Center, Hartford, CT

TV: NESN+ (Saturday)

Streaming: SportsLive

Radio: UConn Sports Network (Saturday)