Dom Amore: UConn men’s hockey, trying to find itself in string of XL games, falls to BU in overtime

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The “Ice Bus” has been logging the miles, figuratively speaking. The UConn men’s hockey team has been on the road most of the first half of the season, so when its bus eased to a stop in the basement of the XL Center Friday, it was long awaited homecoming.

“When we have a decent crowd in the XL Center, it gives us a tremendous advantage,” coach Mike Cavanaugh said this week. “We feed off the energy of that crowd. our guys feel comfortable playing in the building. It’s built for hockey. It’s so steep, the noise and crowd and energy is awesome, it really is.”

If the Huskies are going to make their big move to the national stage, it’s likely to start here on Main and Trumbull, and now would be a good time. Their game against Boston University on Friday night was their first in Hartford since Nov. 27, and the first of four in a row at the XL Center.

And a decent crowd, 3,596, showed up Friday night during the semester break and waited patiently for something to cheer about. With 7:00 left in regulation, Chase Bradley scored to tie Boston University, assuring the Huskies at least one point in the Hockey East standings, but the Terriers sent them home unhappy when Jay O’Brien scored on a breakaway off the face-off, eight seconds into OT for a 2-1 victory.

“I’d say the fan’s got their money’s [worth] tonight,” Cavanaugh said. “I was pretty happy with the effort and the compete of our team for 60 minutes.. We went toe-to-toe with a top team in our league and it didn’t go our way tonight. We certainly played well enough to win.”

The goaltending was spectacular at both ends, with BU’s Drew Commesso, who has been selected for the Olympic team, making 25 saves and UConn’s Darion Hanson making 25, including an outstanding stop on O’Brien’s breakaway early in the third period.

A tough start to a stretch the Huskies have been struggling for. Their season, with 12 of the first 17 games on the road, has been a study in ups and downs, fits and starts. Since coming back from the long holiday break, week, made longer by the pandemic, UConn lost at No. 19 Harvard, then gained an exhilarating 5-4 victory at No. 18 Boston College on Kevin O’Neil’s last-minute goal last Sunday.

Then during the week they fell flat and lost at AIC. The Huskies 9-9-0 record, 6-5-0 in Hockey East, seems about right, promising but not there yet, just outside the national rankings.

“I told the kids, the first half of the year you can’t win any trophies,” Cavanaugh said, “but you can play yourself out of position for them. We played pretty well and put ourselves in contention. There are four majors we play for, the Connecticut Ice, the regular season Hockey East, the Hockey East championship and the national title. Right now, we’re still in position to win every one of those trophies.”

UConn is looking for more production from Jonny Evans, one of last season’s standouts, who had only two goals through 15 games. The Huskies do, however, have two on the Hobie Baker Award watch list, Ryan Tverberg and Jachym Kondelik, who assisted on Bradley’s goal.

“Consistently, Jachym’s been our best player all year long,” Cavanaugh said. “We think the world of him as a player. He’s certainly a kid we wouldn’t trade for anybody. Ryan’s had a breakout year, leading the league in scoring for a while.

However, as Cavanaugh pointed out, it’s way too early to think about end-of-season awards, with two solid months of hockey, and most of the conference schedule to be played. That’s where these next few weeks come in, as the home/road imbalance evens out.

UConn plays at the XL Center twice next weekend against New Hampshire, and again Jan. 25 vs. Merrimack. Then comes the Connecticut Ice Event, returning to Bridgeport, against Yale Jan. 29 and with Sacred Heart or Quinnipiac, ranked No. 2, on the Jan. 30.

Connecticut Ice was one of those events COVID took away in 2020 and 21, a platform for growing the game’s relevance and popularity in the state. As it restarts, Cavanaugh makes no secret of where he’d like to see it — in Hartford.

“One hundred percent,” he said. “Not only is it a great venue for it, it will draw bigger crowds and, especially with the way they’ve closed Pratt Street down, you’re giving people a venue to entertain themselves before and after games. I hope it goes [to XL] in the future, or at least that we try it in the future.”

After leaving Bridgeport this time, the Ice Bus returns to Hartford on Feb. 4 for a game against Providence.

That reads like an ideal itinerary for kick-starting a season, three weeks for UConn to address its flaws, translate its potential offensive firepower into goals, find its path to victories and develop an identity.

Dom Amore can be reached at damore@courant.com

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