With his team off to a 2-5-1 start, Connecticut men’s hockey coach Mike Cavanaugh had every right to be discouraged when he addressed the media last November. The Huskies had just been swept by Boston College, a program that Cavanaugh had been a part of for 18 years before taking the reins in Storrs in 2013.
Not that UConn was expected to beat BC. After all, the Huskies were picked to finish ninth in the 11-team conference in the preseason coaches’ poll.
The back-to-back beatdowns by a combined score of 11-1 at the hands of the Eagles seemed to portend that this was going to be a long season for UConn. Cavanaugh may have been concerned, but he remained optimistic.
“We certainly have a long way to go,” he said at the time. “We just have to dig deep as a team and get better. I certainly believe in the guys in our room, and I know we’re capable of playing better, and it starts with me to get them to play better and to play to their full potential.”
It certainly appears the team is playing to its full potential now. Last weekend’s sweep of Boston University gave UConn five wins in its last six games, as the Huskies improved to 14-13-4 overall and 11-8-2 in conference play. They are tied for fourth in Hockey East, with a legitimate chance to host a quarterfinal matchup.
“I’d love to take all the credit, but really, we have exceptional senior leadership,” said Cavanaugh. “A coach can try to motivate you and get you to play better, improve upon your skills and become a team player, but what really hits home is when your peers do it. It always means more coming from your peers.”
Cavanaugh credits senior captains Ben Freeman and Wyatt Newpower for demanding more from every player on the team. Freeman leads the team in scoring with 26 points (7 goals, 19 assists), while Newpower is tops in plus/minus with a plus-23. Assistant captains Adam Karashik and Alexander Payusov, as well as senior Justin Howell, also have helped galvanize the younger players.
“Those guys have really been the ones driving the bus,” said Cavanaugh. “They’ve been remarkable, and it’s been really fun to watch.”
UConn’s road to playing at home in the quarterfinals will not be an easy one, as the Huskies are set to face No. 8 UMass (19-10-2, 12-7-2) in a home-and-home series starting Friday night in Hartford.
The Minutemen are in second place and looking to clinch home ice for the quarterfinals, as the standings continue to be jumbled heading into the final two weekends. Five points separate the second- through eighth-place teams, with ninth-place New Hampshire just 2 points back of the pack with one or two games in hand on most of the teams it’s chasing.
“It’s a crazy year,” said UMass coach Greg Carvel. “It teaches your team that you’ve got to be performing at a really high standard every night. You can’t really take your foot off the gas.
“It’s a tight league, which is great, but it just demands so much of you, and your staff, and their preparation, and your players, that you compete at that high level and execute. It’s great for development. It’s great for our league.”
UMass junior John Leonard is the leading goal-scorer in the league with 24, while classmate Mitchell Chaffee is second on the team with 17. Chaffee missed last weekend’s split with UMass Lowell with an injury and is considered day-to-day.
Freshman defenseman Zac Jones, a third-round pick of the New York Rangers, has three goals and 16 assists and has reached the point where Carvel can put him on the ice in any situation. Senior defenseman Jake McLaughlin, whom Carvel considers the MVP of the team, leads the league at plus-27.
Harvard (12-9-6, 10-5-5) will be looking to stay in the top four of the ECAC when it closes out its regular season with a pair of games at home this weekend. The Crimson host Rensselaer Friday and Union Saturday. RPI is just 2 points behind Harvard for fourth place; the top four teams get byes for the first round and host quarterfinal matchups the following weekend.
The Pot thickens
BC (22-8-1, 15-6 after Thursday night’s 6-1 rout of Merrimack) and BU (12-11-8, 9-7-5) will meet for the first time since the Terriers rallied from a 3-1, third-period deficit for a 5-4 overtime win in the first round of the Beanpot. The Eagles have since gained some separation from the crowded Hockey East field, with last week’s sweep of Northeastern running their winning streak to five games.
BC coach Jerry York believes his squad learned from the loss in the Beanpot, when BU was able to take advantage of an Eagles penalty.
“Discipline in tight games late in the period, staying out of the penalty box. The kids understood we let a game slip away from us there, because of that,” said York.
“It’s not just necessarily learning about why do we win games, but what prevents us from winning games. Certainly unnecessary penalties are a sure way to not win games. So I think we’ve eliminated that for the most part. Our special teams are better, and just our energy is so much better.”
It’s all covered
Hockey East and CBS Interactive announced this week a multiyear agreement to stream all men’s and women’s games on CBS All Access, CBS’s subscription video on demand and live streaming service. Each game played in Hockey East arenas, including all postseason contests for both the men and women, will be streamed live in the US and Canada, with archival content available as well.Follow Andrew Mahoney on Twitter @GlobeMahoney.