MacKenzie has Connecticut working hard for its first championship

Kiana Nauheim (UConn - 3), Emily Snodgrass (UConn - 62), Kelly Horan (UConn - 21) - The Boston University Terriers defeated the visiting University of Connecticut Huskies 4-2 on Saturday, November 19, 2011, at Walter Brown Arena in Boston, Massachusetts. (Melissa Wade)

It has been a few years, but Connecticut has enjoyed some good seasons.

The Huskies became a Division I program in 2000-01 with former Northeastern coach Heather Linstad in charge, and played exhibitions and nonconference games versus an assortment of club, D-III, and D-I programs. In its second season, Connecticut competed in the ECAC Eastern league and only played D-I opponents. That conference became Hockey East the next season, and Connecticut has been a member throughout.

In 2005, the Huskies upset New Hampshire in a conference semifinal and played in the Hockey East Championship game, losing to Providence, 3-1, on two goals in the last six minutes. Three seasons later, they posted their best record (22-8-5). In 2010, a season of 21 wins carried Connecticut back to the league title game, where it lost a heartbreaker to Boston University, 2-1, in overtime.

That contest supports the saying, “To the victor go the spoils.” The championship gave BU its first berth in the NCAA tournament, and it has returned every season since.

Connecticut seemingly never recovered. The Huskies won just once in nine games to start the next season and slumped to 13-19-3 for the campaign. From there it got worse, and Connecticut won only seven games in the past two seasons combined. A change was needed; Linstad resigned in March and Chris MacKenzie was named the second head coach in program history in May.

MacKenzie was an assistant to Nate Handrahan at Ohio State last year, and had two years of previous head coaching experience at Niagara, which has been an asset as he’s taken over his new post.

“I’m comfortable with it,” MacKenzie said. “I’ve done it before, and I’m comfortable with it. Getting to know the players has been a real pleasure.”

Whatever struggles his current players have been through during the down years in Storrs, it beats the situation his former players at Niagara encountered when the program folded beneath them.

“It was obviously disappointing that they decided to cut the program,” MacKenzie said. “The team at the time was second place in the CHA in back-to-back seasons, close to a winning record — just below .500, tops in the entire school in community service, and a rising GPA record. All of us were proud of the accomplishments. Seventeen of 20 players on that team ended up playing somewhere else, so I was kind of proud of that. They ended up going to other Division I schools or going to Canada to play college hockey there. We had a lot of passionate players, and they ended up finding a home.”

Under his tutelage, the Huskies (3-6-1) have already matched their win total from all of last season. It has hardly been easy. They have proven to be slow starters, surrendering the first goal in all but one of their 10 games.

“The last few games, we’ve actually had a really good start,” MacKenzie said. “As soon as the game turns into a special teams [battle], like a power play or PK, it becomes a little discombobulated for us. We might lack the depth on our special teams where we’re using a lot of the same players on both sides of the puck, so they may be getting a little tired, I think.”

The slow starts on the scoreboard have necessitated comeback efforts, and the Huskies have been better on that front, with two comeback wins to their credit.

“It shows that we’ll compete to the very end,” MacKenzie said. “It’s something that we want in our culture going forward. Any coach would be proud of the effort that we put forth. Every single game, our effort has been there. It’s more just our execution and confidence in creating offense has been our stickler right now. Sometimes, those things are hard to come by. It’s hard to play offense sometimes. The puck just isn’t bouncing right, but you can always defend well, and you can always just compete till the end, and that’s what we’ve done. I’m very happy.”

Down 2-0 to Rensselaer after 20 minutes, goals by freshman defenseman Jessica Stott and junior Emily Snodgrass drew Connecticut even, and Kayla Campero won it in overtime. The next day, the Huskies fell behind the Engineers once more with just over three minutes gone, but a burst of four goals in less than 11 minutes enabled Connecticut to go on to a 5-2 win.

Its most desperate rally came Sunday at Maine.

“Our first 10 minutes at Maine were absolutely perfect, the perfect road game we wanted to play,” MacKenzie said. “We had a power play, and then all of a sudden Maine got a bunch of momentum from that. Maybe we’ll just start declining penalties.”

Trailing 4-1 with under five minutes remaining, senior captain Erin Burns, sophomore Michela Cava, and Campero all found the net, the final two with an extra attacker on the ice. Although the five-minute overtime did not break the tie, salvaging a point out of a situation offering little hope has to be encouraging.

So is the variety of names on the score sheet, something that will need to continue.

“We’re going to have about four or five players that we’re really going to depend on, so committee would be the word,” MacKenzie said. “If it’s not Kayla Campero scoring in overtime, it’s going to be maybe Michela Cava scoring two goals in the third period [versus Maine]. It might be Sarah MacDonnell. In the RPI win where we scored five goals, Leah Buress got on the board for the first time. Emily Snodgrass had two goals that weekend. There’s really no Olympian, so to speak, on our team right now.”

Although the power play has at times disrupted the team’s rhythm, Connecticut has been fairly effective with the advantage, clicking on 17.9 percent of its opportunities, 14th in the country heading into its game at Boston University Wednesday night. The penalty kill has been even more dependable, killing 40 of 44 penalties, which ranks seventh nationally at 90.9 percent.

“Our penalty kill has been a source of pride for us all year, so it’s nice to see that,” MacKenzie said.

Goaltending is always crucial to the killing penalties. Senior Sarah Moses (3.47 goals-against average, .919 save percentage) and sophomore Elaine Chuli (3.29 GAA, .914 save percentage) have been nearly equivalent statistically.

“I think both goalies have earned the opportunity to play, and both have played well,” MacKenzie said. “Not one of them has seemed to struggle for an extended period of time. Both have been pretty solid for their playing time. I’m open to anything, but as of right now, it’s a strict rotation.”

A challenge for any new coach is meshing his preferred style with his inherited roster.

“Ideally, the style I’d like to play is uptempo, good forechecking, fast, quick, aggressive hockey,” MacKenzie said. “I think we can do that with what we have. Our team works really hard. Just generating offense off of turnovers, that would be my biggest area of improvement. We do a good job of getting the puck. Sometimes we don’t generate enough offense from it. Numbers wise, I’d like to give up fewer shots five-on-five. D-zone and in transition we need to work on, but a lot of teams would say that too.”

Those improvements throughout the season take on added importance this year, because one gets the feeling that the conference is there for the taking. The eventual champion will likely be the squad that can demonstrate the most growth over the next four months.

“Come March, any one of us will have a chance to win Hockey East in the playoffs,” MacKenzie said. “Being ready, being prepared to play your best hockey at that time of year, is something I think all the coaches are looking for. Definitely with some players out due to the Olympics, it does level the playing field a little bit. So we’re definitely hoping to be a part of that championship at the end of the year.”

If it doesn’t happen in 2014, MacKenzie will have Connecticut back in that title game before too long.