As the final seconds ticked down in the quarterfinals of the Hockey East Playoffs at the XL Center, Chase Bradley picked up a loose puck in the neutral zone and turned towards an empty net. He skated over the blue line and buried the long shot to secure UConn’s 3-1 victory over the Boston University Terriers.
On the Huskies’ bench, head coach Mike Cavanaugh braced himself with his left hand on the glass as Bradley collected the puck. When it hit the back of the net, he turned to the crowd and let out scream with his hands in the air, then pounded the glass four times, threw two fists in the air and embraced graduate assistant Will Moran.
On the ice, Bradley grabbed the “UConn” lettering across his chest and got mobbed by his teammates in the corner. Senior Jachym Kondelik hopped towards the party and then got his teammates jumping, too.
The 3,416 fans at the XL Center exploded into a frenzy with an ear-blasting roar as Brass Bonanza blared out from the speakers.
It was a celebration nine years in the making.
Despite being in their eighth season as member of Hockey East, the Huskies had never won a playoff game, losing their nine previous tries. In fact, Cavanaugh had never won a postseason game as UConn’s head coach with an 0-11 record dating back to the program’s Atlantic Hockey days.
After coming up short for all those years, the Huskies finally had their breakthrough.
“It was just raw emotion,” Cavanaugh said of his reaction to Bradley’s goal. “We talked about, as a team, we hadn’t won a playoff game. Sometimes we weren’t good enough and we had great efforts. But it we still hadn’t done it yet. So when we did do it, yeah, I guess that was just some raw emotion coming out.”
“Honestly, it gave me chills,” Jonny Evans added later.
UConn won 3-1, thanks to an empty-netter in the final minute to seal the deal.— Adam Giardino (@adamgiardino) March 13, 2022
In his 9th season at the helm of @UConnMHOC, Mike Cavanaugh gets to celebrate the program’s first @hockey_east playoff win.
See you Friday at the TD Garden for the semifinals pic.twitter.com/Rk92slMD5d
It’s fitting that UConn’s first Hockey East Playoff victory — and its first trip to the TD Garden for the semifinals — came this season. It’s been a year of first for the Huskies from the very beginning. In the opener, they beat in-state rival Sacred Heart for the first time since joining Hockey East. Later, they secured their first victory at Boston College’s Kelley Rink and also earned their first series win over the Eagles.
It helped that UConn didn’t shy away from acknowledging its past shortcomings whenever it faced them throughout the season.
“There are a lot of benchmarks that we hadn’t hit as a program and instead of pretending that if we do it, great, they’re not there, we’ve been talking about it,” Cavanaugh said. “We wanted to win a playoff game. We wanted to get to the Boston Garden and we felt we had a team that was good enough to get to the Boston Garden. So I congratulated them and told them how proud I was of the effort they gave tonight.”
This was also the last chance for the Huskies’ senior class to get a playoff win. While they’d also done so much already during their four years — they led the team to a fifth place and two fourth place finishes the last three seasons, earned the first-ever national ranking and set a program record for the most Hockey East wins in a single season — it would’ve felt incomplete without a trip to the TD Garden. Now, it’s another piece of history that the seniors can add to their resume.
“First and foremost, I’m really excited for our seniors,” Cavanaugh said at the start of the opening statement. “I know that this was very important to them and, god, they played so well. I’m just so happy for them.”
The win over BU wouldn’t have been as special if not for the heartbreak of the last postseason. Almost exactly a year ago, the Huskies hosted Providence in the quarterfinals of the Hockey East Playoffs having secured their highest-ever finish in the league but were run off the ice in an ugly 6-1 defeat to the Friars.
Afterwards, Cavanaugh felt his team played too scared of losing and never gave themselves a chance to win. When the Huskies found themselves in the same situation this year, they weren’t going to let the opportunity slip away.
“Last year, we got home ice and we didn’t take advantage of it and we talked about that,” Cavanaugh said. “I told the kids they’ve been in that fire before. They know what it’s like and they’re ready for this opportunity. I thought they handled it in spades today.”
On Saturday, those eight years of disappointment were released in one moment equal parts euphoric and cathartic — a moment that will be remembered for a long time in UConn men’s hockey’s history.