STORRS — Mike Cavanaugh wanted his UConn hockey team to do things it had never done. That was the motto. He was looking for firsts in the history of the program. First Atlantic Hockey title? Maybe. First trip to the NCAA Tournament? That would be great.
The Huskies scored a major first on Feb. 11 when senior goalie Matt Grogan piled up 58 saves in a 3-2 victory at Providence for their first victory over a top-10 team.
From the moment he took over as coach last May, however, Cavanaugh stressed there was one thing this team could never accomplish and was therefore irrelevant.
"No matter what happens," senior captain Billy Latta, "we can't win a Hockey East title this season."
Ask any outsider about UConn hockey, and the next two words are entirely predictable: Hockey East. The Huskies' first Hockey East game will be next fall against Boston College at the XL Center. It will arrive with fanfare and with Gov. Dannel P. Malloy, BC graduate, Connecticut governor, hockey fanatic, in attendance. In basketball terms, UConn hockey is making the jump from the Patriot League to the ACC.
"It has been exciting for the program overall, and it sounds cool," Grogan said. "We're also not going to be part of it."
"You can't be disappointed about it," Latta said. "You can't control it."
Grogan and Latta won't be on the XL Center ice against BC. Nor will Brant Harris or Jordan Sims. For the Huskies' four seniors, it is all in front of them the next two weeks: If they win the Atlantic Hockey tournament, UConn advances to the NCAAs for the first time in program history. If the Huskies don't, four college careers are over.
"When I took the job, I made it a high priority to focus on this season," Cavanaugh said. "I knew all the talk, all the buzz is about Hockey East, but these four seniors are never going to get the chance to experience that.
"I wanted to make sure they had the very best experience we could give them. It hasn't been an easy ride for them the last 18 months. They've had three different coaches. From day one, they were very accepting of the style of hockey I wanted to play and the culture I wanted to create."
The Huskies, 38th in the PairWise rankings, beat UMass and Providence from Hockey East. They also lost to Canisius (53rd), Holy Cross (51st) and twice to Sacred Heart (54th). That's why the Huskies, who have a first-round bye after finishing fourth in Atlantic Hockey, have an overall record of 18-12-4 heading into the best-of-three conference quarterfinals next weekend in Storrs. The semifinal and championship game are March 21-22 in Rochester, N.Y.
"I think it's our best chance yet," Sims said. "We have the most complete team we've had since I've been here."
While the players worked out Friday at Freitas Ice Forum, Cavanaugh was recruiting on the road, somewhere between Minneapolis and Des Moines, Iowa. Elite young talent eventually will come from Connecticut and around New England for Hockey East, yet the need to scour North America will never end.
Latta is from outside Philly. Sims is from Toronto. Grogan, Gilbert, Ariz. Harris is from Estevan, Saskatchewan, known as the sunniest town in Canada. Unlike basketball, kids haven't grown up praying to make it to Storrs.
"When I tell people back home that I play for UConn," Harris said, "They go, 'Way up north, huh?'"
UConn was an opportunity for these guys to play, to grow individually and help a program grow, a program that did not offer scholarships until this season.
"Matt Grogan has been steady from day one," said Cavanaugh, who has not decided how he will use Grogan and freshman Robby Nichols [named Atlantic Hockey goalie of the month] in the quarterfinals. "He conducts himself professionally in all situations. That's a terrific trait for a goalie.
"From game 1 to game 34, Jordan has improved. Power play, penalty kill, a lot of situations, when he's playing well it elevates our team as a whole."
Cavanaugh called Latta, tied with Harris for the team scoring lead, a unique offensive talent. In his senior year, he also became one of the Huskies' leading shot-blockers.
"Billy can play on any power play in the country," Cavanaugh said. "He's really skilled, one-times the puck as well as anybody. He also has made a commitment to his defensive game I wasn't sure he was going to be able to do. We don't just want a one-dimensional hockey player and Billy I think for the most part of his career was that. When we asked him to make more of a commitment defensively he has done it. That's what leaders do."
Harris, UConn's all-time Division I scoring leader, missed the first half a dozen games with a knee injury and struggled offensively early. He has been a beast in the second half.
"Brant is arguably our best player right now," Cavanaugh said. "The way he has been playing down the stretch, I don't know if there's a more powerful forward in our league. He has been dominant down low. His play is inspiring to watch and ignites our team."
A hot goalie, a bad penalty, hockey games are a different breed. What looks like a massive upset on paper can be a much different story on the ice. Consider Quinnipiac's opening NCAA Tournament game last year. The No. 1 team in the nation had to rally from a two-goal deficit midway through the third period to beat Atlantic Hockey titlist/last seed Canisius. The Bobcats went on to the national title game.
"In basketball, a Patriot League team isn't going to beat No. 1 Florida often. It just doesn't happen," Cavanaugh said. "Same thing in football — UNH or even UMass isn't beating Alabama. It's a mismatch.
"Hockey is different. A hot goalie, a good power play, the other team takes a few penalties, it can happen in hockey for sure."
From Bruce Marshall to Dave Berard to Cavanaugh all in a matter of months, the stress level on the team's leadership was significant.
"Systems are different," Latta said. "In-game situations, in the locker room, how you handle controversy, it was all different."
They handled it. They became better for it. And now it's behind them. The next two weeks will help define their UConn careers.
"Out of respect to us and to each other, we didn't look ahead this year," Latta said. "After our four years here, I think we can say we put the program in a better position than when we got here. That's important to us."
Hockey East, Harris said, was never in the front windshield. A shot at some other firsts are. First conference title? First NCAA bid?
"It would be unbelievable," Grogan said.
"It would mean the world to us," Sims said. "It's something I'd hold on to the rest of my life."