Men's Hockey: UConn faces defending national champs in conference play

UConn freshman forward Max Letunov tracks down the puck against Brown at the XL Center in Hartford, Connecticut on Tuesday, Feb. 2, 2016. (Jackson Haigis/The Daily Campus)

UConn head coach Mike Cavanaugh frequently states his desire to build a hockey team that can consistently compete with the best of Hockey East. The Huskies are going to have a chance on Friday night when they take on the defending national champion Providence Friars on the road. 

Providence (19-5-4, 10-3-3 Hockey East) has moved up to No. 5 in the nation after a weekend sweep of Maine on the road last week. The Friars also boast impressive wins over No. 13 UMass Lowell, No. 11 Yale, and No. 4 Boston College, as well as two ties against No. 7 Boston University. 

They have been especially dominant at home with a 9-1-2 record, but UConn (9-15-4, 4-8-4 Hockey East) has also had their fair share of success on the road this season with a signature win over UMass Lowell back in December and a 3-3 tie against BC on Jan. 23. 

UConn’s starting goaltender Rob Nichols has been out since mid-January with an ankle injury, but returned to practice this week. However, sophomores Tanner Creel and Steve Thulin have proved to be capable backups if Nichols continues to miss time. Creel continued to earn the confidence of his teammates in a 3-3 tie at Merrimack on Saturday.

“Every goalie is great and obviously they have a lot of confidence. We can create more offense because of it,” freshman forward Max Letunov said.

Creel has started four of the last five games in goal and Thulin picked up a win in his lone start during that stretch. Cavanaugh was impressed by Creel’s ability to bounce back against Merrimack after a tough game against Sacred Heart on Jan. 26. 

“It was very reminiscent of how he played against Boston College I thought,” Cavanaugh said. “He did a really nice job and he gave us a chance to win a hockey game.”

No matter who is in net for the Huskies, the Friar’s offense will present a challenge. Providence ranks third in Hockey East with 3.36 goals per game. While freshmen Letunov and Tage Thompson do the bulk of scoring for UConn, Providence features a very balanced attack with six 20-point scorers so far this season.

Seniors Mark Jankowski and Trevor Mingoia are tied for 10th in Hockey East with 28 points apiece and sophomore defenseman Jake Walman is ninth in the conference with 13 goals.  

The Friars limit opponents to 2.1 goals per game, also third in the conference. Providence goaltender Nick Ellis boasts a .929 save percentage on the season and is second in the conference with 18 wins.

A win on Friday would go a long way for the Huskies as they are tied with both New Hampshire and Northeastern for seventh in the conference standings. UConn plays Providence at home on Saturday and then finishes the season with home-and-home showdowns against New Hampshire and Northeastern.

The difference in the Hockey East standings at the end of the year could come down to UConn’s ability to play high-level hockey against an elite Providence team on Friday and Saturday.

If there’s a time for UConn to prove they are a threat in Hockey East it’s 7 p.m. in Providence on Friday and 5 p.m. at the XL Center on Saturday.


Aaron Esposito is a staff writer for The Daily Campus. He can be reached via email at aaron.esposito@uconn.edu.