When Mike Cavanaugh accepted the head coaching job at the University of Connecticut in the spring before the 2013-14 season, he had three goals in mind: graduate hockey players, make them better men, and win championships.
This is the first year the Huskies have competed in Hockey East, and although their record isn’t impressive (4-9-4 overall and 2-4-1 in league), Cavanaugh’s squad has competed hard and made it difficult for opponents.
No surprise, given Cavanaugh’s 18 years under the tutelage of Jerry York at Boston College, when the Eagles won four national titles.
The blueprint has been established and Cavanaugh is building a program based on high expectations. That was on display last weekend during the Frozen Holiday Classic in Bridgeport, Conn., where the Huskies upset defending national champion Union in the opening game and played UMass-Lowell tough before losing in the championship.
“For the first time since I’ve been here, in a year and a half, I felt like our team played championship hockey for six periods,” said Cavanaugh.
It was a big step up from a previous tournament. On Halloween, UConn beat Merrimack in a shootout in the opening round of the Liberty Invitational in Newark. But two days later, the Huskies fell short in the championship game against Yale, 2-1.
“Against Yale, I thought we let that trophy slip away because we didn’t come to play the first 25 or 30 minutes of the game,” said Cavanaugh. “We turned it on late but it was a little bit too late. That wasn’t the case [last weekend]. Right from the get-go, we played a strong hockey game. We played disciplined, we didn’t take any penalties, we had scoring chances. They had scoring chances but [UMass-Lowell] is a good team, the two-time Hockey East defending champions.
“When you’re playing for trophies, the team in the other locker room is usually pretty good. I told our guys, all we can control is our effort. If we can keep putting forth that type of effort, I believe that’s a championship effort, that the trophies are going to come here pretty soon.”
One trio that stood out during the weekend was the all-freshman combination of left wing Spencer Naas, center Kasperi Ojantakanen, and right wing Corey Ronan.
“They’re pretty dynamic with speed,” said Cavanaugh. “They’re really, really quick. They’re all still young and I think in time, as they get older, they’ll be even better. It’s hard for freshmen to come in and put a lot of points on the board. I’ve been fortunate enough to coach a lot [of them at BC]. Cam Atkinson had [seven] goals his freshman year and Nate Gerbe had 11. Those were 30-goal scorers in college.
“As an all-freshman line, I thought they applied a lot of pressure and they created some chances. At times, they were stuck in their own zone, but I think that’s going to happen as well. I like that line. I think they’re going to pose some matchup problems for other teams just because of their speed and how quick they are.”
Cavanaugh said he has seen a lot of resiliency from his team. He said it isn’t the result of being a young team; it has to do with the leadership of senior captain Ryan Tyson.
“I’ve been around a lot of captains and he’s right up there with the guys I’ve coached who I consider true professionals, guys who are so committed to winning and the team effort,” he said. “That permeates through our locker room and that’s why our freshmen are resilient. He and Trevor Gerling and Shawn Pauly and Pat Kirtland, you look at some of our older guys who really are committed to taking this program to a championship level, and that’s why we are resilient.”
As disappointed as they were to lose to UMass-Lowell, Cavanaugh said he wants his players to realize they took a big step forward in that tournament and use that confidence in future contests, such as Friday night’s matchup at UMass.
“I’m always going to be honest with them; if we don’t play well, I’ll tell them,” he said. “In championship teams, the effort is always there. It never, ever wavers. I want them to know we put forth a championship effort.”
Pleased with the pace
One of the highlights from last weekend’s Frozen Holiday Classic was how fluid the games were. For example, both of UMass-Lowell’s victories — over Sacred Heart, 5-1, in the first round on Saturday and against UConn in the title game — were razor sharp and fast-paced. River Hawks coach Norm Bazin said those types of games are a pleasure to coach as well as watch. Saturday’s game lasted 2 hours, 3 minutes and Sunday’s clocked in at 2:09. “As a spectator, when they’re action-filled, when it’s up and down, I really enjoy it,’’ said Bazin. “That’s what you get when you don’t have the TV timeouts. We used all four lines the complete game. So that was a real bonus and all four lines deserved to play.” . . . Notre Dame coach Jeff Jackson is one victory shy of 400. The Irish next travel to Western Michigan Jan. 9 . . . Vermont is 14-4-1, its best 19-game start since 1995-96. The Catamounts play at Yale on Saturday night.Nancy Marrapese-Burrell can be reached at email@example.com.