The University of Connecticut men’s hockey team was dealt a blow Nov. 5 when veteran coach Bruce Marshall announced he was taking an indefinite medical leave of absence. Assistant coach David Berard, a former assistant at Providence (where he was also a standout goaltender), took the reins, but it was a jarring development for the players.
“It was a surprise,’’ said Berard. “I think the coaching staff knew he had some things he had to take care of, but the players had no idea. We were in Niagara [Nov. 2-3] and we drove back early Sunday morning. He was there for practice on Monday and after practice is when he made the announcement to the team, and I think our guys were stunned.
“It’s Bruce’s program and he has been UConn hockey for the last 25 years. He played there, so he’s really been around 29 of the last 32 years. So to have him not there was a change for everyone.’’
However, the players buckled down at practice and focused on hockey. They went into last Friday’s home game against Sacred Heart with an 0-4-1 record but got their first win of the season. They followed that Saturday with a 3-1 victory at Merrimack — just UConn’s second triumph over the Warriors in 25 meetings.
“We have really good kids who are committed and we have a great support staff and everyone picked up the slack and is pushing a little bit harder and doing a little bit more,’’ said Berard. “It has made a difference. Wins and losses aside, I am so proud of what these kids accomplished.’’
Berard and his staff wanted the players to focus on fundamentals and play a simple game, which they did against both opponents.
“I think we played as good a game [against Merrimack] as we could play,’’ said Berard. “We did a lot of things we think we need to do to make a difference in a game. We were blocking shots, we were pitching pucks in deep, we were getting pucks to the net. We scored a power-play goal. Overall, we did everything we needed to do.’’
Merrimack scored first, at 11:26 of the second period, but UConn tied it just over two minutes later. The game-winner was scored by senior captain Sean Ambrosie at 3:50 of the third and Evan Carriere added an empty-netter to account for the 3-1 final.
“Last year, our power play was third in the country, and we’ve really struggled on the power play this year,’’ said Berard. “Not so much getting opportunities but putting it in the back of the net.
“When we scored the power-play goal, that uplifted everyone because we hadn’t had that since our first game of the year against UMass. Then you go into the third period and you’re 20 minutes away and we scored the next goal and we kind of rode it until the end of the game.’’
Merrimack will be a regular opponent starting in 2014-15 when UConn moves to Hockey East. Berard said every building block helps move the program in the right direction.
“As we move forward, it’s certainly going to be something that we look to and talk about,’’ said Berard. “I’ve been here for two years, and the biggest thing we’ve tried to do in the last couple of years as we started to elevate the program is to get these kids to believe that they can play against these teams.
“It’s more of a mind-set than a physical thing. It’s just having the confidence that they can come in here and compete.’’
As for Marshall’s return, there is no timetable, but Berard said he will be back.
“I’m just keeping the chair warm,’’ he said. “I want Bruce’s name mentioned as the head coach. I just happen to be sitting in his chair until he gets back.’’
Although Ambrosie won’t be there to be part of the transition to the new league, he is excited for the Huskies’ future. “You can see at our school, we have a big-time basketball program and a big-time football program,’’ said Ambrosie. “I think we’re missing one more sport and I think that’s going to be the hockey team.’’
He’s a Lumberjack
Northeastern announced that freshman forward Cam Darcy has left the school for “personal reasons.’’ Darcy, a South Boston native, has taken his talents to the USHL, where he will be playing for the Muskegon Lumberjacks . . . Quote of the week goes to Merrimack’s always-entertaining coach Mark Dennehy. Twice during last Saturday’s game against UConn, the Warriors took penalties on the power play, one of which was a five-minute major. “I haven’t read, ‘Hockey For Dummies,’ but I don’t think that’s very smart of us,’’ said Dennehy. “There is a ‘Hockey for Dummies,’ right?’’
After a 15-day layoff, the sixth-ranked Harvard women’s team puts its undefeated record (4-0-0) on the line Sunday at No. 7 Boston University. Harvard has given up just a single goal — total — in four outings. It is the first time the Crimson have started 4-0-0 since 2007-08 when they were 11-0-0. Senior goaltender Laura Bellamy and freshman Emerance Maschmeyer have three shutouts and .984 save percentage . . . One of the top matchups of the week is No. 1 Boston College (8-1-0) hosting Merrimack (4-5-1) Friday night. Sophomore forward Johnny Gaudreau leads the Eagles with 12 points (7 goals) in nine games. Senior netminder Parker Milner heads into Friday with a 1.88 goals-against average and .933 save percentage.