When fans of college hockey look back on the 2019-20 UConn hockey team in 10 years, they probably won’t remember much about them. But make no mistake, this team will have its fingerprints on whatever success the program has in the future.
This is the season that the standard of UConn hockey changed. They are no longer to be the bottom dwellers of the Hockey East and the punching bags for the big guns like Boston College, Boston University and Northeastern. Instead, they will be competing for conference championships.
Unfortunately, the Huskies were never able to cement their legacy with a deep run in the conference tournament — which many people including myself believe they could have done — due to the tournament being canceled because of the coronavirus. However, those who followed this team closely know how special they really were.
The team was picked to finish ninth in Hockey East in the preseason coaches poll and miss the playoffs for the second year in a row, so right away, this team had a chip on its shoulder. But at the start of the year, they looked to be proving the critics correct rather than wrong.
Through the first eight games, UConn was just 2-5-1 and was coming off an absolute beatdown by BC, where they were outscored 11-1 in two games. Both coach Mike Cavanaugh and the players knew something had to change after that weekend, and something definitely did.
The next weekend, they had a great series against No. 12 UMass Lowell with a win and a tie, and over the course of the rest of the first half, they lost just one more game. UConn went into Christmas break on a four-game winning streak after sweeping Miami (Ohio) and Vermont.
After the break, the Huskies got off to a slow start yet again. After a disappointing tie to St. Lawrence at the Ledyard Classic (although they won in a shootout for tournament purposes), they went on to lose four consecutive games. But after that, their fortunes turned again. They notched a comeback win against Maine and an overtime win over Northeastern to give them some momentum going into the first ever Connecticut Ice Festival.
Now, Connecticut Ice didn’t go the way UConn planned — the team lost both games. But they actually outplayed both of their opponents and just got a bit unlucky with one-goal losses.
After the tournament, the Huskies went on their best run of the season, starting with a dominating pair of 7-4 wins over New Hampshire. Then, they went up to Maine and split the series, handing the Black Bears their lone home loss of the season. Then came the BU series.
In the first game at the XL Center, UConn lost an early 2-0 lead and was trailing 3-2 in the final minute of the game. Captain Benjamin Freeman tied the game up with under a minute to go, and on the first shift of overtime, he made a great play to find Sasha Payusov for the game-winning goal. The XL Center went crazy, but the Huskies still had more magic in store.
After a 6-1 rout of BU the next day, No. 8 UMass came to Hartford for Senior Night the next weekend, and UConn pulled off its second magical comeback in as many weeks. Down 2-1 late, Marc Gatcomb and Kale Howarth both scored in the final 1:30 of the game to give the Huskies a 3-2 win.
We clinched a playoff spot last night and blew the roof off XL Center! pic.twitter.com/PWTqh134fF
— UConn Men's Hockey (@UConnMHOC) February 29, 2020
After that game, UConn was actually in second place in the Hockey East standings and were in a prime position to host a playoff series. They ended up losing their final two games to UMass and UMass Lowell, which dropped them down to the fifth seed, but it was still UConn’s best season since joining Hockey East in 2014. They finished 15-15-4 overall and 12-10-2 in conference games. It was the first time they had ever finished over .500 in Hockey East play.
The Huskies were set to head up to Maine for the Hockey East quarterfinals, but the day before the series was to start, the NCAA canceled all winter championships, ending UConn’s season prematurely. We’ll never know how far the team could have gone, but given the run it put together in the second half of the season, it certainly was capable of accomplishing something special.
What a win last night! And what a great group of seniors leading us. Check it out ⬇️ pic.twitter.com/EZaDEGsUY5
— UConn Men's Hockey (@UConnMHOC) February 29, 2020
After the season, multiple Huskies took home honors. Captain Wyatt Newpower was named to the All-Conference Second Team, Vladislav Firstov was named to the conference All-Rookie Team and coach Cavanaugh was a finalist for conference Coach of the Year.
Newpower was the team’s MVP. He was such a calming presence on the ice, and he was the team’s best two-way defenseman. The team played better when he was out there, as shown by his team-leading +23 rating this season. Freeman led the team in points with 28 and assists with 21 in an incredible senior season.
Payusov rounded out the senior leadership group by tying for the team lead in goals with 12. The player who he tied with was Carter Turnbull, who had a breakout season as a sophomore with 12 goals and 12 assists. Firstov was a big impact player as a freshman with 11 goals and 12 assists.
The thing that really set this team apart was its depth. Every line and every player had the ability to score, and there were multiple weekends where the Huskies got scoring from lines one through four.
This was a special team and a really exciting one to cover. As UConn hockey continues to make a name for itself on the national scene, it will be this team that people will trace the success back to. The times most definitely are changing for UConn hockey.