UConn Hockey: Cavanaugh, seniors have team believing in winning

UConn senior goaltender Matt Grogan - Steve Slade (UConn Athletic Communications)

The University of Connecticut is looking for its first Atlantic Hockey Championship in its last season in the league before embarking on a journey to Hockey East.

Coaches often talk about instilling a winning culture or changing the belief in the locker room when taking over a new program, but for first-year University of Connecticut head coach Mike Cavanaugh, the belief was already there.

The team he took over made a terrific second half run into the Atlantic Hockey Tournament before losing to Mercyhurst in the semifinals. UConn went 14-6-2 in the 2013 calendar portion of last season, but more impressively had a seven-game unbeaten streak before losing to the Lakers.

"To win a championship the hardest thing to do is believe you can win it," said Cavanaugh. "These guys played so well last year and they got so close that when I got here it didn't take any convincing. I didn't have to brainwash or hypnotize them to get them to know they can win this. Half the battle is over," he added.

If there is anyone that knows a thing or two about winning and believing it is Cavanaugh, the former longtime Boston College assistant who was on Jerry York's staff for four NCAA Championships and countless league and Beanpot crowns.

This year's UConn team has a good blend of senior leadership and talented underclassmen to make a run to a postseason title possible.

One of those seniors is Brant Harris who scored his 100th career point Saturday night at Mercyhurst. The Estevan, Saskatchewan native missed the first six games of the season, but has eight goals and six assists in 15 contests since coming back.

"Its' going to take a lot. Obviously we haven't won before so it's something we don't really have any experience in, but [the seniors] know what we can do and what we can help the team with. We have the group of guys that can make a push for it and really compete to win it," said Harris.

There have been some ups and downs in Cavanaugh's first season at the helm in Storrs, but there have been many positives and learning experiences along the way.

The Huskies didn't win, but they went to Erie, Pa. last weekend and picked up two crucial road points at first place Mercyhurst, thanks to two consecutive ties. However, there have also been disappointing losses, such as a 3-0 loss to Sacred Heart in the opening round of the UConn Christmas Tournament.

"After the Sacred Heart game, as the coach said, the only way you can be okay with that outcome is if you learn from it and it makes you better as a group," said senior Billy Latta, the team's leading goal scorer with nine.

"There have been a lot of twists and turns along the way. We've talked about making the most of every opportunity we have. You don't want to look back and have any regrets," continued Latta.

One reason the Huskies will be so dangerous come postseason is senior goaltender Matt Grogan. The Gilbert, Az. native was spectacular last season after taking over for Garett Bartus. Grogan went 14-4-3 with a 1.93 goals against average and a .937 save percentage.

His numbers haven't been quite as good this season, but he's a goaltender very capable of getting hot at the right time and sparking a team to a playoff run.

Protecting Grogan is one of the best young defenses in the Atlantic Hockey Association. The Huskies' defense is made up of two juniors, two sophomores and two freshmen on most nights. It's a very physical defense that sometimes is mistake prone, but also has a bright a future.

Joona Kunnas, a freshman from Vantaa, Finland, will be a highly sought after college free agent in a couple of years due to his size and ability to move the puck up ice.

Freshman blue liner Ryan Segalla is the team's only NHL draftee, having been selected by the Pittsburgh Penguins in the fourth round of the 2013 NHL Draft. The Salisbury alum shows flashes of being a dominant defender in the years to come.

It's a work in progress, but the Huskies and their coaching staff believe the team will be primed and ready to earn the league's automatic bid come March.

"We have to continue to grow and build on the success we have had," said Cavanaugh.

Cavanaugh and his staff, assistants Joe Pereira and Mike Souza, are hot on the recruiting trail and have already landed some top-flight prospects for when the Huskies join Hockey East.

Cavanaugh, a North Andover, Mass. native who played college hockey at Bowdoin, is one of the classiest people in the game and will no doubt have many people rooting for him to succeed in Hockey East.

But first, he and this year's team have some unfinished business to complete in Atlantic Hockey.

Jeff Cox covers college, junior and high school hockey, NCAA recruiting, NHL Draft prospects and the AHL for SBNation. Follow him on twitter @JeffCoxSBNation.

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