Men’s Hockey Preview: Huskies return to the ice against Harvard Crimson amid COVID-19 concerns

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The University of Connecticut men’s hockey team will resume its season on Sunday, Jan. 2, facing off against Harvard University. The Huskies haven’t played a game since Colgate University on Nov. 27 due to COVID-19 outbreaks in UConn’s and opponent’s teams, forcing each series against Merrimack College and American International College to be postponed.

Ahead of Sunday’s game, head coach Mike Cavanaugh spoke to the media about the status of the team and its current health, as well as the anticipated return to play.

“It was certainly great to get back and I could see the energy,” Cavanaugh said.

The Huskies practiced four times this past week, and Cavanaugh highlighted the team’s enthusiasm for the rest of the season.

“You could tell that they’ve missed playing and we’ve certainly missed coaching, I’m excited to just get going again,” Cavanaugh continued.

The Huskies, albeit over a month ago, are coming off of a win against Colgate, with a final score of 6-1 at the XL Center. However, the team will “get going” while still being concerned about COVID-19. Cavanaugh explained how the outbreaks within the team began during the Colgate game, where a player sat out as doctors believed he had the flu. This created a sequence of testing throughout the team, where players tested positive for COVID-19.

“We were ready to go up to Merrimack, but the Hockey East protocol is 15 players and two goalies and at the time, we didn’t meet that protocol on Friday afternoon,” Cavanaugh said.

Although it was Hockey East’s protocols that kept the team from skating, Cavanaugh believes that they are for the best and praises the conference’s prioritization of student athletes’ health.

“I think the protocol of 15 players and two goalies is good … you start going below that, and you’re going to start putting the student athletes at risk,” Cavanaugh expressed.

While there aren’t any Huskies who are currently injured on the team, COVID-19 is still present in the program.

“I don’t know if we’ll ever be through it … We are still dealing with it but we meet protocols and we will be fielding a team on Sunday,” Cavanaugh said. However, he noted that “it won’t be the same lineup against Colgate.”

So, who’s playing on Sunday, and in what order against the Harvard Crimson?

Cavanaugh declined to announce the first string, and as of now he has not determined the starting goaltender.

“Things are still a little bit unsettled as far as who may be available and who might not be available for Sunday, so there’ll probably be some changes from last game but that’s only because of availability of players,” Cavanaugh explained.

The players that do take the ice will be ready, Cavanaugh said. He told the team ahead of the break that they would have conditioning tests to be in the best physical condition possible to play 60 minutes of hockey in Boston, focusing more on themselves and less on Harvard.

“Because we haven’t played in so long, I’m really just worried about how we play, more than I am Harvard,” Cavanaugh said. “Listen, they’ve got a great team. I think their power play may be one of the best in the country.”

Going into Sunday, the Huskies are ranked seventh in Hockey East standings, with an overall 8-6 record and 5-4 record in the Hockey East conference. Harvard is a member of the ECAC Hockey conference, and currently boasts an overall record of 6-4-1 and conference record of 5-2-1.

“When we focus more on playing our game rather than the opponent, and as I said, you pay attention to the opponent’s special teams, you might pay attention to the opponent’s certain face-off plays they like to run but for the most part, the game is such a fluid game. There’s so many changes of possessions in the game, I’m more worried that we’re structurally sound and that we’re skating and we’re competing for 60 minutes,” Cavanaugh said.

Harvard is also coming off of a break, where the team last competed on Dec. 4 against Yale University. The Crimson won over the Bulldogs with a score of 5-3 after losing their previous two games as they went scoreless against Brown University and the University of New Hampshire.

“They’re certainly extremely dynamic up front, they’ve got big defensemen who are mobile and they’re strong in goal,” Cavanaugh said. “They’re a really good team, so we know we’re going to have our hands full come Sunday, but we also have to focus on our team and what we do well.” 

Ultimately, the Huskies are looking to win from within in their first game of 2022, playing on their strengths and improving their weaknesses, which is how they plan to play in the rest of their season.

“We still continually need to improve on our special teams. That’s an area where we have to start winning those battles throughout games,” Cavanaugh explained. “The championship teams, the teams that go far in the playoffs are teams that are going to win the special teams game—or definitely not lose it. If you want to win consistently, you’ve got to win the special teams game and that’s certainly going to be a focal point in the second half.”

The puck drops on Sunday, Jan. 2, at the Bright-Landry Hockey Center in Boston at 7 p.m. The game will be broadcasted on ESPN+, with coverage on ESPN 97.9 and streaming at ESPN.com/Watch. 

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