This week in women’s D-I: Connecticut peaking at right time and looks for next upset

Annie Belanger of Connecticut (Connecticut Athletics)
Annie Belanger of Connecticut (Connecticut Athletics)

Undoubtedly the biggest upset of the first weekend of conference tournaments was Connecticut out-lasting Providence to advance to the Hockey East semifinals. UConn is the first seven seed to advance to the semifinals. No program seeded lower than fifth has advanced to the final weekend.

One the one hand, the Huskies making the semifinals seems incredibly improbable. They did not tally their first conference win until January 13. They needed a series of events to go their way in order to even ensure they’d make the Hockey East tournament.

On the other, they’re a team that came into this season with eight returning seniors, including goalie Annie Belanger. They were adding a top prospect in Natalie Snodgrass. They’d looked promising last season, but a series of injuries derailed them. On paper, they never should have struggled as much as they did.

So yeah, maybe the Huskies shouldn’t be in this position. Or maybe this is where they were meant to be all along, and it’s just taken them a bit to get there. Either way, whatever happened in the regular season is in the past, and the Huskies are only focused on the games ahead of them.

Coach Chris Mackenzie said after their series-clinching win over Providence that the adversity the Huskies faced is what has ultimately made them a better team. The season before Mackenzie took over the program five years ago, UConn won just three games. He was out on the recruiting trail looking to build an identity for the squad he was taking over and convincing players to take a chance on him and on UConn.

Belanger is one of the players who Mackenzie said on Sunday bought into the vision of what he was trying to accomplish in Storrs. It’s been a slow build since then, and this season looked like it could be a culmination of a lot of hard work for this class that Mackenzie recruited and has seen through a full four years. The regular season didn’t play out that way, but the Huskies know that the only game that matters is the next one.

Being the underdogs just means there isn’t a lot of pressure.

“We’ve been through it all, so one goal isn’t really going to faze us,” said Belanger. “The adversity doesn’t faze us at all. Our whole careers have prepared us for this. Today was win or go home, but it’s been that way for a month as we tried to get in the playoffs, so this feels really rewarding.”

If UConn is to pull another upset, it’ll be on the shoulders of Belanger. Despite spending much of the season at the bottom of the Hockey East table, she leads all Hockey East goalies in both goals-against average (1.83) and save percentage (.937) over the course of the full season. She’s tied for third in the country in save percentage and is 10th in GAA. The Huskies are 10th overall in team defense, while they sit back at 22nd in team offense.

The blue line and the play of Belanger have carried UConn much of the way, and while they’ll rely on her quite a bit, they’ll also be looking to a recently energized offense. In overall conference play, the Huskies were out-scored, 47-56, but over the final 10 regular season games (all against Hockey East opponents) they held a 24-15 goal advantage. One reason for the offensive boost has been the play of Hockey East All-Rookie Team honoree Natalie Snodgrass, who scored four of her six goals this season during that same 10-game regular-season-ending stretch.

However, the newcomer isn’t letting the stress of the postseason get to her.

“We all know the severity of it. It’s win or go home,” she said on Sunday. “We just played our game, kept it simple.”

The Huskies will have a tough task in top-seed Boston College, who are also the No. 3 team in the country. The Eagles have an incredibly potent offense, but before UConn was even close to getting their first Hockey East win, they were earning two ties against BC. Belanger made 45 saves in the teams’ 2-2 tie back in October and another 31 in the 3-0 loss. She was not in net for the 3-3 tie in November.

The Huskies may be playing on borrowed time, but they also don’t have much to lose. They’re used to playing every minute like it’s their last, and they have worked to elevate not only their level of play, but the level of expectation for the program. Setting a new standard for the Huskies may be the lasting legacy of this squad, but the players don’t think Boston College winning this weekend is a foregone conclusion.

“They are definitely a great team, but we tied them twice this year,” Belanger told the Hartford Courant on Wednesday. “If there was an easy way to beat them, they certainly would have more losses. We know how good they are, but (we) are confident. We can’t allow ourselves to have a bad period, especially against a team like that. You have a bad period, and the game is going to be over.”