On Saturday, UConn men’s hockey recorded its first-ever Hockey East Playoff win with a 3-1 victory over the Boston University Terriers, unleashing a celebration unlike any other in program history.
As important as the victory was, the Huskies now have to put it behind them and refocus their attention on the Hockey East semifinals, where they’ll meet the Northeastern Huskies at TD Garden Friday. While the potential for a hangover from the win is a concern, head coach Mike Cavanaugh isn’t too worried.
“I think Northeastern can get us refocused pretty quick,” he said. “We’re playing for a trophy this week and our kids are pretty focused on that. I think they’ve certainly put BU in the rearview mirror. You know, there’s a reason why the windshield’s a lot bigger than the rearview mirror: What’s ahead is a lot more important than what’s behind you.”
Ahead are uncharted waters for the Huskies. UConn has never reached the semifinals of the Hockey East Playoffs and Matt Pasquale — the third-string goaltender — is the only player on the roster who’s taken the ice at TD Garden. The Huskies have also won just a single conference championship in program history — the 2000 MAAC Tournament — but need to take home the Lamoriello Trophy in order to make the NCAA Tournament.
To get there, they’ll have to go through the Hockey East regular season champion in Northeastern, which features the league’s top goal-scorer in Aidan McDonough (23 goals) and arguably the best goaltender in the nation in Devon Levi.
The skates are high and the path is difficult. Yet UConn remains undaunted.
“A lot of the teams look at it with pressure. I don’t think that’s our case, or at least I don’t feel it,” Jachym Kondelik said. “I think we’re just going in there like every other game.”
It’s not that the Huskies don’t understand the stakes or the magnitude of the game, they’re just sticking to the same script that they’ve followed all season. As a team, they haven’t shied away from speaking openly about their goals, whether it be winning at Boston College for the first time, earning their first playoff win or accomplishing another program milestone.
All season long, UConn has made a habit out of doing what it’s never done before. Friday’s game is just the latest example of that.
“It’s not just another game. That’s what we’ve been talking about as a team all year long. It’s, it’s the Hockey East semifinals. We’re not afraid to talk about it. It’s something we’ve wanted,” Cavanaugh said. “That’s how we’ve approached all of these games. So no matter where we’re playing, it’s a game that’s important to us. We talk about it and we’re not afraid to play on that stage.”
UConn also has a significant amount of confidence in itself as a team. The Huskies are veteran-laden with six four-year seniors, three graduate transfers and six juniors. They’ve played a lot of hockey together and know what to expect from their teammates.
“Lack of pressure and confidence kind of go hand-in-hand,” Kondelik said. “I have huge confidence in our team. Every single guy in the locker room, I have huge confidence in...I know Marc (Gatcomb)’s gonna do his job. I know [Darion Hanson’s] gonna be great in goal. I can go up and down the lineup and I know the guys are gonna do their job. So that kind of releases us from the press right. That’s how I look at it.”
It also helps that Northeastern is a familiar opponent. The two teams squared off just three weeks ago in a home-and-home series and also played in October. There won’t be any secrets on Friday.
“We’re pretty familiar with their team,” Cavanaugh said.
In the last meetings, UConn put 103 shots on goal across the weekend but dropped both games after a remarkable performance from Levi, the Hockey East Rookie of the Year who made 100 saves in the two contests.
UConn also ended up on the wrong end of a goaltender interference call that wiped out a go-ahead goal in the third period — a decision Hockey East later apologized to Cavanaugh for. Afterward, Northeastern scored three unanswered goals to take the 5-2 victory.
While UConn doesn’t need any extra motivation, it’s hard to imagine that won’t be in the back of its head when the puck drops on Friday.
“I think you don’t really need [more motivation],” Kondelik said. “As you go to the Garden, there’s gonna be a huge amount of motivation either way.
“But you know, we’re coming for them.”