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UConn men’s hockey’s drive for the Hockey East regular season title begins this weekend against UMass

The Huskies are just two points back of first place with six games remaining in the regular season.

Ian Bethune/The UConn Blog

In UConn men’s hockey’s locker room, the team hung photos of four trophies at the start of the season: Connecticut Ice, the Hockey East regular season and playoff titles, and the national championship. They represented the four trophies the Huskies had the chance to win and kept the team’s long-term aims in view for the players every single day.

They took the photo of the CT Ice trophy down following their 2-0 loss to No. 2 Quinnipiac in the championship game a few weeks ago — one opportunity lost. But for the first time ever, the second one — the Hockey East regular season crown — is attainable.

UConn has six games left before the postseason — all of which are against conference opponents. The Huskies are currently tied with Boston University for second place in the league standings with 35 points — but they’ve played two fewer games (18) than the Terriers (20). UConn is just two points behind UMass and UMass Lowell in first place with two games in hand on the River Hawks. The Huskies are even with the Minutemen in games played.

As it happens, UConn and UMass will square off in a home-and-home series this weekend, starting at the XL Center in Hartford on Friday night. These two games won’t decide who wins the regular season title but either side can certainly play themselves out of contention with a poor showing.

That makes this upcoming series arguably the biggest in the Huskies’ program history. UConn has never finished higher than fourth in any conference since joining Division I in 1998 and it wasn’t in contention for first in any of those seasons. This year, the Huskies are in the thick of the race and have proven they belong there, too.

UConn has defeated every team in Hockey East this season aside from UMass and Vermont — which it hasn’t played yet. The Huskies have won six straight Hockey East contests, seven of eight overall and have scored six goals in each of their last three games — the most ever under head coach Mike Cavanaugh. On Monday, UConn debuted at No. 20 in the USCHO Poll, marking just the second time the program has ever been ranked.

The Huskies are no longer the plucky underdogs in a league full of giants. With two fifth-place finishes and fourth-place finish in the last four seasons, they’re real contenders in Hockey East.

“This is exactly what we’ve strived for, especially since I came here to UConn,” Cavanaugh said. “This was my expectation and this is what my vision was — to be able to play in these types of games late in February.”

Historically, the UConn men’s hockey program has been an afterthought in an otherwise strong athletic department. The Huskies have won a conference championship just once — the 2000 MAAC Tournament title, which didn’t even include an automatic bid to the NCAA Tournament — are one of five programs at the Division I level who have never made the NCAA field.

Under Cavanaugh, UConn has claimed one trophy — the 2016 Desert Hockey Classic — and it wasn’t until last season that Jonny Evans became the Huskies’ first-ever Division I All-American.

When Cavanaugh arrived in Storrs in 2013, it was like he entered a bizarro world. At Boston College, the hockey teams are two of only a few programs that can walk and chew bubble gum at the same time. UConn was almost the complete opposite.

“When I came here to UConn, there was excellence in so many sports,” he said. “When I got here they were pretty much fresh off going to the Fiesta Bowl in football. Then, Jim Penders’ program’s been outstanding for so many years. Ray Reid and the two soccer programs were very, very good. Nancy Stevens was winning national championships in field hockey. Our track teams have been very competitive and have won.”

The success of the Huskies’ two basketball programs goes without saying as well. But it’s not just one sport that brings home trophies.

“It’s kind of the standard at UConn and that’s an expectation of our athletic department,” he added. “We’re just trying to live up to that expectation.”

As the Huskies begin the final stretch against UMass, they’ve had to balance their aspirations for the Hockey East regulation with a day-by-day, game-by-game approach. They can’t win a trophy on Friday but they also don’t want to shy away from acknowledging their goals. Cavanaugh, as he often does, had an analogy to describe the team’s approach.

“We have a telescope and we have a microscope,” he said. “The telescope is the regular season trophy. But in the microscope is the opponent at hand on Friday night — actually, in the microscope is today’s practice.”

In Evans’ view, the best way to win a regular season title — or any trophy for that matter — is to focus on one thing that a time — one game, one period, one shift.

“It’s game by game, that’s just how we look at it,” he said. “We look at it day-by-day and we know the end result will be a trophy. That’s what everyone’s here for and everyone’s buying in for. I think if we just start taking one shift at a time, then we know the end result will be a trophy if we all buy in.”

UConn is wading into new waters in this final stretch — though that’s nothing different for the program. Two years ago, the Huskies battled for home ice in the playoffs in the final few games. Last season, they earned their first ranking and finished fourth for the first time in Hockey East. The team’s coming fight with UMass and the other contenders for the regular season crown is simply the latest step forward for the program.

There’s nothing more UConn could ask for at this point in the season.

“We can’t win a trophy tomorrow night,” Cavanaugh said. “But we can certainly put ourselves in a better position to win one if we play extremely well and win tomorrow.”