Even if the Huskies didn’t stage their second remarkable come-from-behind win in as many weeks, it would have been a special night on Friday at the XL Center, as UConn’s five seniors were honored during a pregame Senior Night ceremony. But the fact that UConn scored two late goals to upset No. 8 UMass to clinch a spot in the Hockey East Tournament made the night even more memorable.
“It’s always great to get a win on Senior Night,” head coach Mike Cavanaugh said after the game. “We were able to do it last year — we talked about that — but the game didn’t mean anything. These games mean something.”
Cavanaugh was referring to UConn’s 4-3 win over then-No. 2 UMass in last season’s finale when the Huskies were already eliminated from postseason play. They are in a much different spot this year with an opportunity to possibly host a quarterfinals series.
“One of our slogans before the game was ‘integrate or migrate,’” Cavanaugh said. “You either integrate and stay together or eventually you’re going to migrate off into your own separate ways. And last year, we stuck together and won a game on Senior Night, but then all the seniors were going somewhere else to turn pro and what not. This year, it’s different. I want to keep these seniors here as long as we can.”
Senior captain Wyatt Newpower said that knowing the days of him wearing a UConn jersey could be numbered is even more of a motivation to lead this team on a special run.
“This career is everything to us, and we don’t want to leave here until they absolutely throw us out of the building,” Newpower said. “We’re gonna keep pushing as long as we can, and we’re gonna keep pushing these young guys to keep doing things the right way.”
The five seniors honored prior to Friday’s 3-2 win were Bryan Nelson, Justin Howell, alternate captain Alexander Payusov and captains Newpower and Benjamin Freeman. Each of them received a video tribute and was joined by members of their families on the ice. Along with the customary playing of the American national anthem, there was also a playing of the Canadian national anthem for Payusov, a native of Montreal.
Every senior except Nelson, who wasn’t active for the game, started the game for UConn, but only Howell, the fourth-line center, was out of place in that lineup.
All the seniors have had very different journeys and play very different roles on this team. Nelson is from Upton, Massachusetts, and was a part of the program for two seasons before leaving to focus on his academics. Then he re-joined the team this semester to provide depth and more of a veteran presence.
Freeman, a native of Falmouth, Maine, has played in 134 games in his UConn career, where he’s accumulated 77 points. He’s been through some ups and downs, but he’s put together a terrific senior season as a captain, leading the team with 28 points (seven goals, 21 assists).
Payusov is the best pure scorer of the bunch and probably the most improved player of the bunch. After registering a 0-2-2 line in 16 games as a freshman, he has scored at least 12 goals in every season since and now has 40 in his career, good for ninth all-time in UConn’s D-I history. Payusov has been arguably the team’s best offensive player this season.
Howell, who is originally from Saint Paul, Minnesota, has missed a lot of time over his career with injuries, but he has become the anchor of the Huskies’ fourth line this season and a true testament to the depth of this team. He is one of the grittiest and most physical players on the ice, and he gives the team a real advantage in that area while still providing some scoring depth with three goals.
Newpower, another Minnesota native who is actually the reason Howell came to UConn, has played in 113 games in four seasons at UConn. In addition to becoming the team’s best overall defenseman this season, Newpower has emerged as the vocal leader of this team as a captain. He leads the team with a +24 plus/minus and always seems to be involved with every big play, including the game-winner on Friday.
“It means everything to me,” Newpower said about getting honored with his fellow seniors. “These guys have become my best friends in the world. We’ve spent countless days, hours in the weight room, on the ice together going through the worst of things we probably could have imagined at the time. So to be here at this point, especially to get a big win like that in front of an incredible atmosphere, there aren’t a whole lot of words for it really.”
Cavanaugh couldn’t say enough about this senior group and what they’ve meant to the program on and off the ice.
“A lot of the seniors that have come through here, if they make it to their senior year, have been really remarkable players and everything I want in a Husky hockey player, and these guys have just been the epitome of that as well,” Cavanaugh said. “They go to school, they get great grades … They continually have great work ethics, so they’re doing it off the ice. They bring it on the ice, and then out in the community, they lead by example as well. That’s all I want. If you’re doing that for us, then I think you’re gonna be a successful player here.”
It was only appropriate for the team to notch another incredible win on Friday for the seniors. Freshman defender Carter Berger, who was involved with all three goals (one goal, two assists), said the seniors deserved a win like that.
“They’re the guys who drive the bus on this team,” Berger said. “They’ve bled and sweat so much and done so much for this program. So to be able to give it back to them in the way we did tonight, it was awesome.”
Even though it was the underclassmen who fueled the win with the late goals, make no mistake, that win was inspired by the seniors.