The University of Connecticut and Boston College hockey programs are a world apart. The Eagles are a program stout with tradition and history while the Huskies are a program just making the leap to the big time of Division I.
Mike Cavanaugh, in his second season behind the Huskies bench, is looking to create his own unique program in Storrs while implementing some of the many things he learned in his time at Boston College as an assistant coach.
Cavanaugh, a disciple of legendary Boston College head coach Jerry York, the winningest coach in NCAA history, has a long road ahead. Although plans are in the work for a new on campus facility, UConn will call Hartford's XL Center and Bridgeport's Webster Bank Arena home this season.
Wednesday night's game in Hartford marks another significant milestone in UConn's ascent to Hockey East relevancy. The Huskies host Boston College in the program's first ever home Hockey East game. It's certainly a game that many around the school and state of Connecticut have eagerly been anticipating since it was announced two offseasons ago that that the Huskies would be transitioning to Hockey East.
There will be plenty of pomp and circumstance surrounding the game, mostly for it being the first ever home game as a member of Hockey East. But more so, the game should hold added significance. It is against an opponent that many schools, including UConn, aspire to be on and off the ice.
Like the Eagles or not, and everyone around Hockey East fandom seems to have an opinion one way or the other, Boston College's hockey program has done things the right way since Jerry York arrived at his alma mater from Bowling Green over 20 years ago.
York just racked up his 500th win at the school last weekend against Denver. He had guided the Eagles to four NCAA championships, countless Hockey East trophies and Beanpot titles. He has produced Hobey Baker Award winners and an abundance of talent that has moved on to the NHL. York has done all this the right way. Sure, like every program, there have been a few moments of negative publicity, but by and large, it has been a program run with dignity.
In Cavanaugh, UConn has a leader who is very well prepared to bring a similar type program to Storrs. Cavanaugh was York's right hand man for almost two decades. He did a significant amount of the recruiting and was right next to York on the bench for all four NCAA titles at BC.
The Eagles have the undeniable advantage in talent in Wednesday's matchup, the first ever meeting between the two schools. Boston College has its own stud goaltender between the pipes in Vancouver Canucks prospect Thatcher Demko, but if there is one potential difference maker in the game it is UConn sophomore netminder Rob Nichols.
Nichols, a Dallas, Texas native, has posted a .928 save percentage through seven games played. The Huskies have been outshot by a wide margin in almost all of their seven games, but three of their four losses have been by one goal. Nichols certainly has the ability to keep UConn in this game.
The Eagles, at 4-2-0 overall and 1-1 in Hockey East, come in to Wednesday's game fresh off a weekend split at Denver. York's team no longer has the services of last year's vaunted first line of Johnny Gaudreau, Kevin Hayes and Bill Arnold. Understandably the offense has struggled, but Boston Bruins draft pick Ryan Fitzgerald is a player UConn fans should keep a close eye on. The son of former NHLer Tom Fitzgerald, he has five goals in six games. A center, his play in the defensive end has also gotten a lot better. Keep an eye on big power forwards Adam Gilmour and Alex Tuch, a first round selection of the Minnesota Wild in this past June's NHL Draft.
Defensively, the Eagles are without New Jersey Devils pick Steve Santini, a dominant, physical blue liner. York's defense still boasts three very good NHL prospects in junior captain Michael Matheson, sophomore Ian McCoshen and freshman Noah Hanifin, likely a top five pick in next June's NHL Draft.
Thatcher Demko, a very young freshman last season, has a year of experience under his belt. He's an athletic and fundamentally sound goaltender. He plays his angles well and has a quick glove.
The Huskies have a lot of very good freshmen on the roster including the team's leading scorer Spencer Naas. Cavanaugh has two weapons in the intangible game in juniors Shawn Pauly and Patrick Kirtland. Pauly is terrific in the faceoff circle while Kirtland is a terrific all-around hockey player who plays well in all three zones. Cavanaugh described Kirtland as his team's top complete player. Another wildcard is sophomore Ryan Segalla, a defenseman by trade, who has played the wing the past few games. He's a big, physical presence who creates havoc on the forecheck.
The most noticeable aspect of UConn's defense is the size on the blue line. Freshmen Derek Pratt and David Drake, a Philadelphia Flyers prospect, have continued to fit the mold of big defensemen. Joona Kunnas, Jacob Poe and Kyle Huson bring a ton of size as well. Freshman Johnny Austin, a high school teammate of Naas, is the exception. He's undersized, but has the best mobility of any of Cavanaugh's defenders.
Nichols, as mentioned above, can be a game changer. He's kept the Huskies in all but one of their games in the opening month. He's not technically sound between the pipes compared with Demko at the other end of the ice. Nichols will flop and move around a lot more in the crease, but his athleticism and quick reflexes leads to some acrobatic saves.
Jeff Cox covers college, junior and high school hockey, NCAA recruiting and NHL Draft prospects. Follow him on Twitter @JeffCoxSports.