When David Drake committed to play college hockey for the University of Connecticut, the program was transitioning from its final season in Atlantic Hockey to the more prestigious Hockey East Association.
Going from playing against Atlantic Hockey foes to facing the likes of Boston College, Boston University and Providence on a weekly basis has been an adjustment for the UConn program.
“It’s definitely been a growing experience. The first two years we kind of relied too much on our goaltender to keep us in games. But the program has come a long way. The coaches have brought in recruits like Tage [Thompson] and Max [Letunov] who can play with anyone in the country,” Drake explained.
As far as the program has come over the past three seasons, the playoffs can be a measuring stick. Drake and the Huskies have been swept out of the opening round of the Hockey East Tournament during their first two seasons in the league. If UConn is going to advance to the quarterfinals, Drake and his comrades on the blue line are going to have to shut down one of most vaunted offenses in the country.
Northeastern boasts three 50-point scorers, including senior Zach Aston-Reese who is tied for the national lead in scoring. Sophomore Adam Gaudette’s 15 power play goals is tops in country. Players like Dylan Sikura, Nolan Stevens and John Stevens can also be lethal offensively.
“They are great players. They’ve proven they can put up points. We look forward to the challenge of going up against them,” said Drake.
Northeastern swept UConn, 3-0 and 4-1, in a home-and-home series just two weeks ago. Drake said the team will be focusing on making it harder for Northeastern to exploit seams and holes in the defense this time around.
“One of the biggest things we need to do is take away time and space. If you give great players too much time, they can burn you,” Drake said.
Playing against and watching elite offensive players like Thompson and Letunov in practice can give Drake and the rest of the defense some ideas of what to watch for in games.
“Seeing guys like that in practice helps you move into games because you know what other great players might do with the puck,” explained Drake.
As the program has grown, so has Drake. The 2013 seventh round pick of the Philadelphia Flyers has matured and developed under Mike Cavanaugh and the UConn coaching staff.
Drake, a Naperville, Ill. native, has always been known as a defensive defenseman, but he has contributed three goals this season after finding the back of the net just once over his first two years.
“Defense has always been first with me. But, throughout college, I’ve tried to jump into plays and join the rush more. As my game has matured, my offensive game has come along,” said Drake.
At 6-feet-6 and 195 pounds, Drake can be an intimidating force on the blue line. While he isn’t as mobile as some other defenders, he utilizes other tactics to shut down opposing forwards.
“My stick has always been a strength of my game. I’ve learned a lot about positioning here. Positioning can be huge to playing good defense,” said Drake.
Drake has benefited from the defensive expertise of assistant coach Brendan Buckley, a former Boston College defenseman who played several seasons in the AHL.
“Buck has been great. He had a long pro career. He comes to the rink every day and you can just tell he loves the game. He pushes us to be better. He’s given me some tricks on how to play better positionally,” Drake said.
Playing for Cavanaugh, Buckley and Joe Pereira has helped Drake’s development in multiple ways after coming from the Des Moines Buccaneers in the USHL.
“My positioning and making plays,” said Drake when asked about his biggest improvements since coming to UConn. “They stress confidence and they’ve helped me play with more confidence.”
Drake, an alternate captain as a junior, has enjoyed the transition of his game and that of the program over the past three seasons.
“It’s special to see how far the team has come,” said Drake.
Reaching that next step and enjoying post-season success starts Friday night at historic Matthews Arena. Drake and his UConn teammates will look to dethrone the defending Hockey East Tournament Champion when the best-of-three series starts at 7 p.m.