Coming out of the 2020-21 season, there wasn’t much reason to believe in the UConn men’s hockey and head coach Mike Cavanaugh. The team was coming off a mediocre season that saw them go 10-11-2, and this wasn’t the first disappointing finish. Since Cavanaugh took the IceBus into Hockey East, he went a combined 85-121-29, posting zero seasons over .500. Fans all over Twitter were calling for him to be canned — but he stayed in Storrs, with athletic director Dave Benedict as his biggest believer.
Last season, Cavanaugh started to turn things around when the squad earned a pair of ranked victories on the road in just the first six contests. The team withstood a few losing streaks and a 1-4 span in early January, but this changed when they rolled into the Connecticut Ice Tournament. They took Yale down easily in Game One, and although they lost close to Connecticut powerhouse and consensus No. 2 Quinnipiac, the Huskies looked like they truly belonged.
After the loss, Cavanaugh’s Huskies ripped off five of six wins against Hockey East competition, propelling them into the USCHO rankings for the first time in a long time. Any momentum they had was lost though when they lost three of their last four games, including a sweep from No. 15 Northeastern, putting them into the Hockey East tournament on a sour note.
Even with this downward trend, Cavanaugh brought his group together in a convincing quarterfinal win over No. 16 Boston University. They then traveled to Boston and the TD Garden for their semifinal against No. 10 Northeastern, the team that swept them just three weeks earlier. The Huskies pulled out a big victory, taking them to the Hockey East championship against reigning national champions and No. 11 UMass. The Huskies took a 1-1 game into overtime, but lost a heartbreaker with two minutes left to eliminate them from NCAA tournament contention.
The most exciting part of the team wasn’t just that they won games and made it further than they ever had — it was the talent on the roster. The most intriguing player was sophomore Ryan Tverberg, who led the team with 14 goals and nearly made the Canadian World Juniors roster.
There was one concern going into this season: was this success sustainable? The Huskies were in line to lose three of their top four point leaders and needed to have rotational players and freshmen step up in a big way.
And they have so far. UConn has started the season 7-1-1 and has reached their best ranking in program history at No. 8 with their first ever first place vote. Two of their seven victories are against teams currently ranked in the top 11.And although their leading scorer is unsurprisingly Tverberg, who has more than double the goals of anyone else, others have made major impacts too.
Another name that stands out is Matthew Wood. The 17-year-old is the youngest player in college hockey and wasn’t even supposed to be a Husky until next year. Over the summer, he made the decision to reclassify, giving UConn some much needed reinforcements in lieu of their departing talent. Wood is ranked as a consensus top 15 prospect in this upcoming NHL Draft and is nearing first round-lock status.
He’s been everything he was advertised to be through nine games, notching a trio of goals to go along with five assists so far. His eight points put him second on the team right behind Tverberg. Wood has been phenomenal and will only get better as he continues to gain confidence at the collegiate level.
Even if Wood is merely a one-year rental, the most important thing about him is that he’ll attract more talent to Storrs. Similarly ranked recruits will see that UConn can pump out first round draft picks and come to play for Cavanaugh. It’s a virtuous cycle.
The job that Cavanaugh has done through his past few years to build this top 10 UConn hockey squad cannot be understated. He’s built a great, young roster that should be able to continue their production this year and attract others in future years. If he can continue at this pace, UConn hockey is in line to compete with the basketball teams’ success on a year-to-year basis —but they’ll have to make the NCAA tournament first.