The Ice Bus made its last go-round for the 2022 season at the XL Center, but it hasn’t put the brakes on. After beating BU 3-1 in the Hockey East quarterfinals, UConn is headed to TD Garden to play Northeastern University in the semifinals, a playoff game where the team hasn’t played before.
“It’s win or go home,” head coach Mike Cavanaugh stated before the game, fully understanding the assignment ahead, which was to earn UConn’s first post-season win in program history.
However, he wasn’t about to let the team get caught up in the pressure.
“If you worry about that instead of worrying about playing, you’re not going to be successful,” the coach said to the players. “They don’t call it the worried-offs, they don’t call it the afraid-offs, they call it the playoffs and the teams that play, have the best chance to win.”
The Boston University Terriers were a force for the Huskies all season, so they knew that Saturday wouldn’t be much different. UConn lost 1-2 to BU in the second game of the year for the Ice Bus before beating the Terriers 5-1 in Boston the next night back in October. Most recently, the two teams met for their final game of the series in the regular season, where UConn suffered a 1-2 loss in overtime.
UConn came not only ready to play on Saturday but determined to win.
This was evident throughout the entire first period, symbolized by the 18-10 lead on shots over BU, finally amounting to a goal with four minutes left until the first break. With a strong team effort over both the offensive and defensive lines, forward Vladislav Firstov scored the first goal of the night after it was captain and forward Jachym Kondelik who fought for possession, passing it to defenseman Jake Flynn to make the initial shot. Firstov found the rebound to send it past BU goaltender Drew Commesso.
The first period may have been over after that, but the Huskies were just getting started.
UConn was still dominant in physicality, plays and shots in the second period. About halfway through, the Terriers were still blanked as the Huskies increased their lead to two goals. Forward Jonny Evans broke through Commesso after quickly taking defenseman Ryan Wheeler’s rebound from the original shot he took, which forward Carter Turnbull set up.
“Honestly, I didn’t really think much, just tried to get it over his pad,” Evans recalled on his goal. “It was a tight angle but luckily got the good bounce.”
All season, it was the seniors driving the Ice Bus together, and prior to the game, Cavanaugh expected this exact sort of play from the Class of 2022 believing that “they’re by far the most successful senior class we’ve had here at UConn.”
“This class has just continued to build off of what we started in Hockey East. They’ve gotten better, they’ve had more wins than any senior class at Connecticut in Hockey East. This year, we had the most wins we’ve ever had in Hockey East in a single season. They were the first class to be ranked in two separate years,” Cavanaugh stated.
Even when BU came out for a strong third period, looking for a comeback, the seniors led the Huskies in keeping the Terriers at bay. Although they increased their shots, UConn goaltender Darion Hanson only allowed one BU goal to make it on the board at 13 minutes into the final 20, where BU had a power play and successfully capitalized on it to keep Hanson from a shutout.
Hanson continued to deflect pucks for the last seven minutes and in the final two, BU pulled Commesso in order to put extra pressure on UConn with another potential scorer. The shots were coming, but so was forward Marc Gatcomb to pick up the rebound.
“I was looking over at the rebound and it was sitting right there for anyone and I didn’t see anything,” Hanson said. “At the last second, I saw Marc Gatcomb come in and scoop it out and that’s — right there when that happened — when I knew the game was over. That’s something that I’m not going to forget for a while, to be honest.”
Gatcomb sent the puck up to rookie Chase Bradley, who couldn’t help but score on the empty net to cap off the 3-1 win and punch ticket for the Ice Bus to roll to TD Garden.
The team immediately erupted in celebration, with their head coach included.
“I think he gets excited about every win we have, but moving on to the Garden, that’s something special and that’s something that we’ve worked towards very hard all year,” Evans said about his coach’s high energy after the win. “He was excited, the whole bench was pumped up, everyone in the building was.”
For the entire game, UConn’s goaltender had full faith in his offensive line and believed that it would come down to this moment to win the game. Although he thinks that “a big piece to being successful in the playoffs is to try and block out the noise,” the roar of the XL Center wasn’t something to be shut out.
“It was insane, the energy that we got in the first 10 minutes, we were just feeding off of it. Vladdy’s goal there, that was the loudest I’ve ever heard the XL up to that point. Once the clock went out, or when we scored the empty net goal, that was the loudest,” Darion confessed. “I must say, being in the crease, seeing Chase put that one away there with 10 seconds left and getting to watch our bench and how fired up we were and how fired up Cav was, that’s a moment I’m never going to forget so I’m very thankful, very thankful.”
Of course, the head coach is grateful for the team that not only won on Saturday, but for everything that propelled them all to this point in the season.
“This year, I love our team,” Cavanaugh said. “This time of year, it’s fun to be a hockey coach. You’re not implementing systems, our guys know exactly what we want, they know all the drills so it’s really just going out and executing.”
All week, the Huskies were piling up everything that they had earned this season, but they were still hungry for more. Their coach kept their appetites alive, speaking into existence all week about everything that’s been accomplished and what could come if they kept it up.
“We talked about it as a team; we hadn’t won a playoff game. Sometimes, we weren’t good enough and we had great efforts, but it was still [that] we hadn’t done it yet,” the coach said. “There are a lot of benchmarks that we hadn’t hit as a program; we wanted to win a playoff game and we wanted to get to the Boston Garden, and we felt that we had a team that was good enough to get to the Boston Garden. So, I congratulated [the team] and told them how proud I was of the effort they gave tonight.”
Looking for that same effort, the UConn Huskies will skate into Boston to take on the Northeastern Huskies on Friday at 4 p.m. in the Hockey East semifinals at TD Garden. The UMass Amherst versus UMass Lowell game follows at 7 p.m., and the winner of each game will face each other for the Hockey East Championship on Saturday at 7 p.m. All games will be streamed on NESN.