As UConn men’s hockey made its run in the Hockey East Playoffs, it faced a champion each step of the way. In the quarterfinals, the Huskies beat Boston University, who claimed the 2022 Beanpot. In the semis, they took down Northeastern, winners of the 2022 Hockey East regular season.
But to become champions themselves, UConn needed to go through UMass — not only the defending Hockey East Playoff champions but also defending national champions.
The Minutemen were as experienced as they come in the postseason. Entering the title game on Saturday, they had won their last nine playoff games. The Huskies, meanwhile, picked up their first victory in the Hockey East Playoffs just a week earlier.
Still, UConn’s run had UMass head coach Greg Carvel worried.
“I was real concerned,” he said. “UConn had been playing so well. It just seemed to be maybe their time. Maybe we had our time.”
For a moment, it looked like that might come to fruition. After a scoreless first period, the Huskies went up 2:25 into the second when Vladislav Firstov re-directed a shot into the back of the net. In three postseason games, UConn had scored first each time. The first two contests, the Huskies came away with a victory.
Considering they hadn’t allowed a single even strength goal to that point in the postseason — and gave up just two goals overall — they put themselves in control of the game.
Of course, one goal was never going to be enough — but the Huskies knew that. The night before, Northeastern responded a few minutes after UConn went up 1-0, but the Huskies came back with three unanswered goals to earn the victory and move on.
The second goal never came for the Huskies, though. UMass finally got itself on the board when Bobby Trivingo scored on a breakaway late in the second period and UConn survived a third period in which it only put two shots on goal to force overtime.
In the end, the Minutemen held onto their spot atop the league. 3:06 into the extra period, Aaron Bohlinger wristed a shot through traffic that found the back of the net to give UMass a 2-1 win over UConn in the Hockey East championship game on Saturday.
With the Huskies already eliminated from contention for an at-large bid to the NCAA Tournament, their season — the best in program history — came to a painful end at TD Garden.
“We fought, we clawed and we hung in there and we gave ourselves a chance to get to overtime and win our first title,” head coach Mike Cavanaugh said postgame. “But it just wasn’t meant to be tonight.”
Even though UConn didn’t return to Storrs with a trophy, it still made plenty of history this year. With a final record of 20-16-0 (and 14-10-0 in conference play), the Huskies secured their first winning season since 2013-14, recorded their third 20-win season ever and their most wins in Hockey East.
UConn also accomplished a series of firsts — first playoff win, first trip to TD Garden, first win at Boston College and first time beating every team in the league at least once. Along with all of those, the Huskies placed fourth in the Hockey East standings — tying their highest finish — and were ranked in the USCHO Poll twice after cracking the top 20 just just once previously.
There were more than a few memorable moments as well. On Jan. 8, UConn earned a thrilling win over Boston College that featured a tying goal from the Eagles with 54 seconds left followed by a game-winning goal from Kevin O’Neil 22 seconds later to lift the Huskies to their first win at Kelley Rink.
In the quarterfinals, Chase Bradley’s empty-net score that sealed the victory set off a celebration eight years in the making that will forever be etched in the program lore. The semifinal win over Northeastern was UConn’s first at TD Garden in the Hockey East Playoffs and represented a symbolic moment of arrival for the program.
This season showed that the arrow is pointing upward for the Huskies, even if they didn’t accomplish everything they wanted to.
“We’re not neophytes in this league anymore but we’re still relatively young. The league is 37 years old and we’re only eight years in,” Cavanaugh said. “The last three years, we finished in the top five of the league and there’s 11 teams in this league. If you’re consistently finishing in the top five in the league — and the last two years, we finished fourth — I think that says something on consistency and where the program’s going.”