January 26, 2011

From NEHJ: Bartus solidifies UConn's turnaround

by Allen Lessels

Garrett Bartus had backstopped UConn to five wins quicker than any season since 2006-07. (photo: Steve Slade/UConn)

Editor’s note: This article originally appeared in the January 2011 issue of New England Hockey Journal.

Garrett Bartus had been home in the Chicago area for Thanksgiving and was driving back to St. Louis to resume his goaltending duties with the St. Louis Bandits of the North American Hockey League when he got the call.

Was he interested in coming to Storrs and playing goal for the University of Connecticut? Like, right now?

“It came out of nowhere,” Bartus said about arriving at UConn a year ago. “I was trying to make something happen, talking to a couple of schools for the next season and this came out of nowhere. It was a good opportunity to come in and play right away. It all happened kind of quickly.”

Sure did.

About a month later, Bartus was making his first collegiate start in a 4-1 loss to Bentley. Two weeks after that, he was in against three-time defending Atlantic Hockey champion Air Force in Colorado Springs and made 57 saves in a 2-2 tie.

A week later, he stopped 30 shots to snap RIT’s 13-game unbeaten streak against Atlantic Hockey rivals and earn his first triumph, 2-1.

A Huskies turnaround spurred by Bartus and freshman forward Sean Ambrosie, eventually a revitalized offense and a bit of a youth movement in Storrs, was under way.

No, UConn coach Bruce Marshall (West Boylston, Mass.) said with a chuckle, this is not the way he and his coaches generally draw up recruiting and putting together a team. They don’t set out to identify a need at Thanksgiving and hustle to fill it by Christmas.

This time, though, the strategy worked out quite nicely for all parties.

“We had some real growing pains in the net and some injuries last year,” Marshall said. “It’s unusual. I don’t see us making it a habit. But it’s a credit to Garrett and his family and my assistant, Joe Dumais (Auburn, Maine), who made all the dots connect.”

Bartus was on UConn’s recruiting radar, Marshall said, and the Huskies thought it perhaps was a situation where making an offer and bringing him in on short notice just might work out.

The goalie was all for it.

“It was great,” Bartus said. “I could come in and play, and it was real good experience as a freshman.  I got all those games and, coming in this year, I felt a lot more calm and confident in the net. It’s definitely worked out. I couldn’t be happier with how it worked.”

Not that last season was all rosy, mind you.

The Huskies still struggled to score and finished in ninth place, one point out of the Atlantic Hockey cellar with a 6-19-3 league record, and were 7-27-3 overall.

But they played some of their best hockey at the end of the season. They went to Bentley and won 2-1 to knock the Falcons out of the league tournament and then gave RIT a scare in the first game of their quarterfinal series before falling, 4-3 in overtime.

“We definitely put up a fight,” said Ambrosie, now a sophomore. “And we feel like now we can make a bigger jump than we did last year. We pushed RIT last year, and we feel we can go past that round this year and win Atlantic Hockey.”

Ambrosie and a bunch of other young forwards are a major part of the renewed confidence.

He was second on the team in scoring, a point behind then-junior Andrew Olson a year ago. But the numbers were far from impressive: Olson had nine goals and 10 assists for 19 points in 37 games; Ambrosie was at 7-11-18.

A couple of 3-3 ties (of all things) gave an early indication that things might go a little better this season.

The Huskies opened at No. 7-ranked Maine, but Bartus stopped 40 shots, Ambrosie scored with less than seven minutes to go and UConn got its tie.

Three weeks later, UConn scored three goals in the last 11 minutes at Union, ranked in the top 15, for another 3-3 tie. Freshman Jordan Sims scored two of those goals.

The Huskies really started to heat up as the first half of the season came to a close. They picked up consecutive wins for the first time all season in their last two games of the semester, an 8-5 decision over Niagara followed by a 9-3 win over Sacred Heart.

Take note: The Huskies never scored more four goals in a game during the 2009-10 campaign. They scored five or more four times in their last six games of this season’s first half.

The splurge gave them 53 goals in their first 15 games. Last season, they scored 59 in 37 games for the season.

Freshman Cole Schneider led the scorers at the break with seven goals and nine assists for 16 points. Ambrosie, Sims and Olson joined Schneider with seven goals in the first 15 games. No Husky hit double figures in goals last season.

Five of the top six scorers were freshmen or sophomores. 

Bartus had numbers a tad behind last season’s with a .898 save percentage and 3.78 goals-against average and had been on campus barely a year. 

“But you need veterans to provide leadership to show what it takes day in and day out,” Marshall said. “Hopefully you get a good balance of young guys bringing energy and older guys with their leadership.”

The mix seems to be working.

UConn was at 5-7-3 overall and 5-4-1 in Atlantic Hockey at the Christmas break. It was the earliest the Huskies got to the five-win mark since the 2006-07 season. Last year, they won game No. 5 on Feb. 19.

There remains plenty to be done, for sure, and the Huskies excitedly looked ahead to making a run at an Atlantic Hockey championship and a second half that includes an outdoor game against Sacred Heart at Rentschler Field in Hartford on Feb. 13 as part of Whalers Hockey Fest.

“We’re having a blast so far,” Ambrosie said. “It’s actually fun to go to the rink every day, unlike last year. It’s tough to come back after a weekend when you lose two games. … All of us underclassmen are excited for the years to come.”

Marshall notices the difference.

“The feeling in the room is a little different than the last year or two,” he said. “Then it might have been more, ‘Can we win?’ Now it’s more, ‘We can win,’ every night. But we need to stay grounded and keep working every day. We don’t need to be thinking about running off five wins in a row. We can do that, but if you just think it, it’s not going to happen.”

Allen Lessels can be reached at feedback@hockeyjournal.com