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Experience key to UConn's second year in Hockey East

Matt Dewkett

Stepping up from Atlantic Hockey to play in arguably the best conference in the country was a stiff test for the University of Connecticut hockey program.

That was apparent from the Huskies' first game in Hockey East, facing a barrage of shots at Merrimack and giving up a late lead to lose 2-1 in overtime.

UConn's first year in Hockey East had its ups an downs, highlighted by a big 1-0 upset win over Boston College in the home opener, as well as wins over NCAA Tournament teams Quinnipiac and Vermont.

Third year head coach Mike Cavanaugh, who has over two decades of experience in Hockey East, including his time as an assistant at BC, knows what it takes to win. He believes with a year's worth of experience and an infusion of young talent, year two in Hockey East will have more ups than downs for his Huskies.

"One of the things that will be much easier for us this year is that a lot of our players are now acclimated to the league, the different arenas we're going to and the schedule we have to play. Last year I had been through it and our assistant coaches had been through it, but none of our players had," explained Cavanaugh.

With added experience, Cavanaugh hopes that some of his team's defensive capabilities and strategies can be adjusted to be more conducive to generating offense and adding to the win total.

Two of last year's biggest detriments to winning were UConn's inability to put points on the board and its difficulty getting the puck out of its own zone.

"With three freshmen defensemen last year that are now going to be sophomores with a year under their belt, I think we'll do a better job breaking pucks out of our zone," Cavanaugh said.

"With a 45 second shift, we won't be spending 30 seconds in our zone. When you're spending all that time in your own zone, it's hard to sustain the energy to go back on the offensive," he added.

Cavanaugh also said there will be a change in the team's defensive philosophy that he believes will help the team avoid being stuck in its own zone for long stretches of time.

"We really protected the middle of the ice last year. We gave up a lot from the perimeter. That was our game plan. I don't think we're going to be that passive this year. We may be a little more aggressive in our defensive zone," Cavanaugh stated.

Last year we wanted to protect the grade A areas and let Robbie see them from the outside, but it gives up a lot of possession time," added the 2013 Terry Flanagan Award winner, given annually to college hockey's top assistant.

Cavanaugh is equally pleased with what he believes some of his newcomers can do to boast the team's breakout ability and to generate offense.

"I think we've done a pretty good job recruiting some offensive talent. With some of the defensemen we're bringing in and the guys who have a year under their belt, it's going to make it better for us offensively."

The two defensemen Cavanaugh is referring to are 2014 Ottawa Senators draft pick Miles Gendron and USNTDP product Joseph Masonius, a late add in the recruiting cycle after he de-committed from UNH. Gendron, especially, is considered a very good puck-moving defenseman who should make an immediate impact in the team's transition game.

Also bolstering the offense are two freshman forwards who come to Storrs in high regard. BU de-commit Maxim Letunov is a smooth, skilled playmaker from Russia who played with the Youngstown Phantoms the past two seasons. He's a 2014 second round draft pick of the St. Louis Blues, although his NHL rights are now owned by the Arizona Coyotes.

Fellow rookie forward Tage Thompson is a big-bodied center with a powerful stride, good feet and offensive upside. He will compete in Thursday's CCM/USA Hockey All-American Prospects Game that brings together 40 of the best 2016 NHL Draft targets from the U.S. His father Brent is the head coach of the Bridgeport Sound Tigers, the AHL affiliate of the New York Islanders.

Even with four highly regarded freshmen, Cavanaugh knows the importance that his upperclassmen will play. Relying on his wealth of experience in Hockey East, Cavanaugh stated the need for his juniors and seniors to all step up.

"The hallmark of a good program is you don't rely on one guy to have a breakout year for you. You need all your returning players to take their game to another level," said Cavanaugh, mentioning how well UNH has done with that over the years.

With this year's recruiting class and the flashes of good play last year, it could be sooner rather than later that UConn is mentioned in the same breath as the UNHs and BCs of Hockey East.