college hockey Huskies focused on winning now

October 5, 2018

STORRS — These are transformative times for the UConn men’s hockey program.

There are grand plans for a 2,500-seat rink to be built on campus, which, if all goes as planned upon completion, will give the Huskies a better home-ice advantage and improve their odds in recruiting battles.

“We went out to Miami of Ohio last year and they have a 2,800-seat facility. It was electric, fantastic, one of the nicest facilities that I’ve ever been to,” head coach Mike Cavanaugh said Thursday during the team’s media day at Freitas Ice Forum. “We didn’t play very well, but the stadium and the arena and the amenities I thought were second to none.”

Cavanaugh’s hope is that when the Huskies open the doors to their new home years from now, his program will be operating on another level.

As they begin their fifth season in Hockey East, the Huskies, Cavanaugh said, have steadily transformed from a team that went from “hoping to win to expecting to win.” The Huskies, who went 15-19-2 last year and have yet to finish above .500 in one of college hockey’s toughest conferences, are ready to compete — not just two or three years from now, but today.

“We had nine seniors. They were the first Hockey East class recruited here,” senior forward Max Kalter said. “They laid down the foundation. They did a great job. To follow in their footsteps means a lot to all of us. We’re going to do our best to do that.”

Added senior defenseman Miles Gendron: “We expect to be a good team this year. Anytime you play a competitive sport, you want to win. I think we all take a lot of pride in the fact that we’re going to be a good team this year. We’re going to prove some people wrong.”

There are a multitude of factors that have led to these enhanced expectations, one being the arrival of a highly touted freshman class. Cavanaugh expects this 12-player group, which includes Russian-born forward Ruslan Iskhakov — taken 43rd overall by the New York Islanders in June’s NHL Draft — to contribute the moment they step on the ice.

“We lost nine seniors and we had two guys go pro. We lost 11 players,” Cavanaugh explained. “I think college hockey’s not anymore unique than college basketball. When you bring in a highly regarded freshman, they’re expected to contribute right away. I think it’s the same thing in hockey. It’s probably a little different in football and maybe even baseball to some point. I know football red-shirts a lot of kids, but that’s not the case in our sport.

“When you come in as a first-year player, you’re expected to contribute quite a bit.”

Cavanaugh said it only helps that a majority of the team’s freshmen already have some experience under their belts. Forward Kale Howarth, 21, a fifth-round pick of Columbus in 2017, has already played 148 games in the BCHL. Jachym Kondelik, a fourth-round pick of the Predators in 2018, doesn’t turn 19 until December, but has competed in international tournaments for the Czech Republic.

“In some ways it’s easier because they’re a little bit more mature,” he said. “They’ve been on their own and they’ve lived on their own for a couple years. In other ways, where they haven’t gone to school in maybe a year or so, that’s the toughest transition, I think, for them. … I think it’s gone pretty well.”

The Huskies made small yet important steps on the ice last year, recording a program-best 11 Hockey East wins and 23 points. They’ve been pegged to finish eighth in Hockey East, three spots below where they ended last season.

“We had a great team last year, we bought into the style,” sophomore defenseman Adam Karashik, of Ridgefield, said. “Now it’s just bring the new guys in, let them buy into our style of play. I don’t think it’s going to be a big jump for me, personally. I think it’s the same thing as last year. You’ve just got to be physical, be harder around the net.”

Cavanaugh has already seem positive developments in the way the Huskies, who open the season Oct. 12 at Army, are approaching this season. This was the first offseason, he said, that every player passed the team’s preseason conditioning test.

The Huskies are making strides off the ice. They’re hoping it pays off on game days.

“We’re not worried about where we’re ranked,” junior forward Alexander Payusov said. “We just (need to) focus on ourselves and what we do. We’ve done conditioning, we’ve been training. There’s no excuse for us.

“We’re aiming for the first spot.”

dbonjour@ctpost.com; @DougBonjour

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