Ice Bus fans got their first chance to see the UConn Men’s Hockey team in person. The Huskies welcomed the Maine Black Bears into the XL Center for their first home games of the season. Beat Writers Bryan Lambert and Sean Janos discuss the team’s first weekend in Storrs and the season as a whole so far and going forward.
What should be the biggest takeaway from this weekend?
Bryan: Fans should be encouraged that the veterans of this team and the 12 newcomers the team welcomed this offseason have seemingly meshed extremely well.
The Huskies had one of the nations’ top recruiting classes this summer through six games, it’s familiar faces like Alexander Payusov, Karl El-Mir and Benjamin Freeman at the top of the stat sheet. However the newcomers are still making their mark felt, even if they still need to find their footing. Just ask their captain, defenseman Miles Gendron.
“In terms of managing games, they always want to make the highlight play, so we’ve been trying to work with them to say ‘Hey we’ve got the lead, let’s manage it a bit,’” Gendron said after Friday’s game. “But they’ve been great. They listen, they work really hard, so that’s been huge.”
Jachym Kondelik has been of particular help to UConn’s offense, distributing eight assists, including three on the weekend.
Sean: I think we learned that UConn has two natural scorers in upperclassmen Payusov and El-Mir and a talented supporting cast of guys that like to feed them the puck. A couple of those guys, junior Wyatt Newpower and freshman Jachym Kondelik, picked up three assists each this weekend. Five of those six assists were to Payusov and El-Mir, who now have seven and four goals on the season, respectively. The next highest scorers on the team are Carter Turnbull and Freeman, who each have two goals, so Payusov and El-Mir and definitely the go-to guys. Getting Payusov and El-Mir their shots seems to be what works for this Huskies’ offense, and they should continue to feed them going forward.
What should be the Huskies’ biggest concern going forward?
Sean: Though UConn’s power play execution could’ve been better, I can’t help but be worried about their ability to close games after allowing Maine to score twice in the final seven minutes of regulation Saturday afternoon. Adam Huska was keeping the goal very well, but then Maine started getting opportunity after opportunity to score down the stretch until Huska couldn’t keep the pucks out anymore. After putting just 10 shots on UConn’s goal through the first two periods, Maine managed to put 23 on in the third and overtime.
According to head coach Mike Cavanaugh, “they [Maine] played desperate hockey and started throwing pucks at the net.” Huska can’t be expected to keep all of those pucks out, especially on the second game of a back-to-back. To close games out, the entire defense has to “stay strong in front of the net,” according to Cavanaugh. “You have to stay disciplined and can’t let your emotions get the best of you.”
Bryan: UConn’s third period collapse against Maine on Saturday was certainly less than ideal but I’m willing to chalk it up to a combination of tired legs from playing less than 24 hours before the fact that they were coming off a drubbing off the same team the night before. It’s easy to get complacent in that scenario and UConn hasn’t previously had trouble closing out games before.
And while I do think it’s unfair to use the word “concerning” this early in the season, I do have some questions about Huska. You mentioned how he was just overwhelmed against Maine on Saturday, and while it is true Huska hasn’t been bad by any stretch, he was intended to be the heir apparent to UConn’s previous full-time goaltender/part-time brick wall, Rob Nichols. After Huska was put on the shelf with an injury last season, UConn rattled off seven straight wins under goaltender Tanner Creel.
Now in his junior year, Huska ranks ninth in Hockey East in goals allowed with a 2.99 average. Obviously, a six-goal outing at Providence tips that stat a certain way but I don’t think it’s out of the question to hope for a little more from the man between the pipes. Huska, already drafted by the NHL’s New York Rangers, has all the talent and potential in the world. I think Huska will eventually start pulling out nights that have our jaws on the floor, just like Nichols did. With the Huskies still trying to figure out how pieces fit early in the season, it would be a gift if they could get a “stand on his head” type game from Huska.
Who was UConn’s star of the weekend?
Bryan: This weekend couldn’t belong to anyone other than El-Mir. The senior forward scored two goals against Maine on Friday, UConn’s sole win of the two days.
In the final minute of the first period, after Maine failed to get the puck out of their own zone, El-Mir sprung free from a pair of defenders and buried a goal top-shelf past goaltender Jeremy Swayman. El-Mir wasn’t done either. After Swayman stoned the Huskies for the entirety of the second period, El-Mir was the man to finally find the back of the net and opened the floodgates. After Corson Green was called for slashing, UConn had to play a man down. After Newpower won a faceoff, El-Mir got behind Maine’s defense for the breakaway. El-Mir easily beat Swayman for the shorthanded goal. The Huskies went on to outscore Maine 3-1 the rest of the way.
“Maine was playing really aggressive and I had confidence in my teammates and my linemates to make the plays and they did,” El-Mir said.
El-Mir may have had a quieter Saturday but without the man on the right wing, it’s likely that UConn doesn’t leave this weekend with a win.
Sean: El-Mir had a great weekend, and was definitely the player of the game in the win on Friday. However, I’m going to have to give it up for Payusov. The junior from Quebec scored three goals this weekend with one in the win Friday and two in the tie Saturday.
Friday, the Huskies fell behind Maine 1-0 after just over a minute of play. UConn, young and at home for the first time of the season, could’ve gotten buried by a talented Maine team early. But Payusov didn’t let that happen. 4:44 into the contest, Payusov tipped a shot by Green into Maine’s goal to tie the game. From there, UConn handily took the win 5-2, and Payusov’s goal was where momentum shifted and the Huskies never looked back.
Saturday, UConn’s offense struggled a lot more than they did the day before. The only player to tally a goal for UConn was Payusov, who had two second period goals to put the Huskies up 2-0. Unfortunately, UConn couldn’t close the game out and the match ended in a 2-2 tie, but if it weren’t for Payusov, the Huskies would have had a really hard time to get anything going on offense. Cavanaugh sung nothing but praises for his leading scorer’s puck-shooting prowess.
“One of the things I think Sasha [Payusov] has understood is that he’s a shooter, he shoots pucks, and he doesn’t try to handle the puck… I think now Sasha is understanding that this is what he’s really good at,” coach Cavanaugh said.
Sean Janos is a campus correspondent for The Daily Campus. He can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Bryan Lambert is a staff writer for The Daily Campus. He can be reached via email at email@example.com.