March 10, 2014

From NEHJ: In Atlantic swan song, Huskies eye big finish

Penguins draftee Ryan Segalla had 1-11--12 stats through 30 games, and has become a two-way force on the blue line for UConn.

The University of Connecticut hockey team is going out the way first-year head coach Mike Cavanaugh hoped.

UConn’s days and games in the Atlantic Hockey Association are down to a precious few. As the regular season came to an end, the Huskies were positioning themselves for a high seed and a deep run in the league tournament, targeting their first league tournament title and the top prize that comes with the crown: a first berth in the NCAA tournament.

“At the end of the day, we all want to go to the NCAAs,” Cavanaugh said.

Cavanaugh made a habit of going to the national tournament with Boston College, his stop before landing in Storrs.

Now he and the Huskies are hoping for a resounding close-out to their run in Atlantic Hockey. Then they are off to join Boston College, Boston University, Notre Dame, Maine and the rest in Hockey East next year.

Next year will come soon enough, and Cavanaugh and his staff, to be sure, have been busy planning and recruiting for that.

First, there’s the business of goodbyes to Atlantic Hockey and sending the seniors — who will miss out in playing in the new league — off on the highest of notes.

The Huskies have only four seniors as they transition into Hockey East, but all play vital roles. The three forwards — Billy Latta, Jordan Sims and Brant Harris — have led the team in scoring most of the year. Sims and Harris each hit the 100-point mark for their careers earlier this season, and Latta was closing in on it in late February.

There are no seniors on the defensive unit, which features junior Jacob Poe and Ryan Segalla, a freshman out of Boston and the Salisbury School who was a fourth-round pick of the Pittsburgh Penguins in 2013.

Senior Matt Grogan had the fourth-best save percentage and fourth-best goals-against average in the league with four games remaining in the regular season.  “I give a ton of credit to the senior class,” Cavanaugh said. “They’ve bought in to the way we want to play. It’s been tough for them. They had three different coaches within a year.”

Longtime coach Bruce Marshall was the boss when the 2012-13 season began, and when he took a leave of absence during last season, his assistant, David Berard, took over. Marshall later resigned and the Huskies had a successful late-season stretch under Berard. But when it came time to name a permanent coach, UConn administrators went with Cavanaugh.

The seniors appear to have taken the changes in stride.

“They’re up there at the top in scoring and it’s not just because they’re good players,” Cavanaugh said. “They buy in to the system. They come to practice every day and work hard.”

The Huskies have concentrated squarely on this year from the get-go, in part because of the seniors, Segalla said.

“Were not thinking about Hockey East,” he said. “Right from the beginning of the year, the focus was on the Atlantic Hockey regular season and then the Atlantic Hockey playoffs and moving on to the NCAAs. We definitely want to do it for the seniors. They’ve been so good to us, and we owe it to them to put in a full effort. They’d do the same for us.”

Cavanaugh (North Andover, Mass.) and his all-Hockey East staff — he played at Bowdoin College and represents BC, and assistants Mike Souza (Wakefield, Mass.) and Joe Pereira (West Haven, Conn.) are out of New Hampshire and BU, respectively — stress defense.

“I believe in the old adage that defense wins championships,” Cavanaugh said. “I look at the NCAA tournament for all the times we went at BC and I remember one high-scoring game against Yale and one against North Dakota, but a lot of them were 2-1, 3-2 or 4-2, with an empty-net goal type of games.”

Offense can be a little too inconsistent for his taste.

“Offense can come and go,” Cavanaugh said. “You can run into a hot goaltender or you can hit a post. You can hit four or five posts in a game. I think if you can rely on defense and it’s always there for you, you have a better chance of being successful than if you have a run-and-gun offense.”

Souza has helped tighten up the defense with his work with the forwards, Cavanaugh said. “He’s done a great job in a lot of areas with the forwards and he brought a little different style of play than I’ve coached,” Cavanaugh said. “He and I sat down last summer and he sold me on it. He picked up some things in different places and it’s been a great system for us. It’s about how you back-pressure in the zone and it requires the forwards to do a lot of back-pressuring and it’s worked. It wasn’t easy for the kids early, but the more they got acclimated to it, the better we were defensively.”

As the postseason approached, the Huskies led Atlantic Hockey in goals allowed at 2.3 per games. They were eighth in goals scored at 2.6.

Grogan will be gone next season, but freshman goalie Robby Nichols has been impressive in his outings.

The plus side of having no seniors on defense is that all the blueliners return. That includes Poe, sophomores Kyle Huson and Tyler Cooke (Warwick, R.I.) as well as Segalla and classmate Joona Kunnas of Finland.

The previous coaches recruited all the players on this year’s team. Segalla was scheduled to play a year of juniors, but Cavanaugh decided to have him come in earlier. He’s glad he did.

“He’s had to play top-four minutes and he’s one of the first guys over the boards if we’re protecting a lead,” the coach said. “Not a lot of freshmen get that opportunity. I think he’s going to really grow from it, and I think we’ll see what he’s gotten from this year in his sophomore, junior and senior years. Even after a year of juniors, he’d have had growing pains. Now the transition will be smoother for him into Hockey East. He’s played at the collegiate level.”

Through 30 games, Segalla (1-11-12), Poe (4-10-14) and Koonas (2-10-12) were grouped together on UConn’s scoring list.

Cavanaugh already has announced his staff’s first group of recruits, and it includes forward Corey Ronan (Franklin, Mass.) out of St. Sebastian’s, whose dad, Ed, played at Boston University; Miles Gendron, a defenseman out of Shrewsbury, Mass., and the Rivers School; defenseman Derek Pratt out of Mount Hermon, Mass.; and Will Golonka, a forward from Carlisle, Mass., and Belmont Hill School.

The immediate challenge is to make the most of a season that already has included wins over No. 9-ranked Providence — UConn’s first victory over a top-10 team — and Massachusetts, and to leave Atlantic Hockey with a bang.

Twitter: @AllenLessels