This Week in Hockey East: Surging UConn has shot at regular-season title, home ice for 2020 playoffs

Tomáš Vomáčka has been solid between the pipes as of late for Connecticut (photo: Stephen Slade/UConn Athletics).

About a month ago in this space, I broke down how I thought the teams might finish in Hockey East based on statistical data.

I weighed both home-ice advantage and also provided a projection not using home ice.

If I asked you which team is the biggest surprise since then, many may say Maine. The reality is, though, my data when factoring in home ice had Maine in second place in the final standings.

Truly the team that has been the biggest surprise in a positive way is Connecticut. The Huskies, by projections, were to finish either eighth or ninth, but a 7-1-0 record in their last eight Hockey East games has UConn not just in position to clinch a playoff spot, but also to possibly grab home ice.

In fact, with the tight Hockey East standings, it’s still possible for UConn to win the regular-season title. Certainly that is less likely given that first-place Boston College still has a game in hand and UConn’s schedule for its last three is tough with two games against Massachusetts and a single game versus UMass Lowell.

But certainly underestimating UConn has proven to be a mistake thus far.

“To the credit of the guys on the team, I kept saying ‘Keep playing [well] and we’ll be okay,’” said UConn coach Mike Cavanaugh. “You keep playing hard and the hockey gods will reward you.

“They stayed with it, and kept playing how we wanted to play the game. Executing at the right time, and they have been rewarded lately.”

This recent push has taken UConn from ninth place in Hockey East all the way up to a tie for fourth with UMass Lowell, a team UConn still has to play one more time but currently holds the tiebreaker with having tied and beat the River Hawks in the first half of the season.

A major reason for the Huskies second-half success has been the play of the forwards, many of whom have taken this UConn team from a one-line club to a deeper three-line club.

Over the last 10 games, Carter Turnbull and Benjamin Freeman have each logged 12 points, while steady senior Alexander Payusov has potted eight goals of his own. In fact, eight different UConn players have recorded eight or more points over the 10-game stretch, bringing Cavanaugh and his staff the offensive depth they hoped they had.

“One of the strengths of our team is that we have pretty good depth up and down our lineup,” Cavanaugh said. “You can’t lead team in scoring and not go to the hard areas, and [Ben Freeman] goes to the hard areas and gets rewarded.

“Carter is having a breakout year. Last year he had an ankle injury, a fracture, that you could play through but it clearly affected him. He’s healthy now and he’s had a breakout year.

“You need all four of your lines going for you.”

The back end for UConn has also improved.

Tomáš Vomáčka has played virtually every minute for the Huskies posting an average line of 3.17 goals against and a .898 save percentage. Contrast that, though, with his last 10 games, where his save percentage rises all the way to .920 and his GAA dips to 2.49. Those are numbers that make this team more than competitive.

“[Vomáčka] came back from break with a really bad case of the flu,” explained Cavanaugh. “He tried to gut it out and play up in [the Ledyard Bank tournament in Dartmouth], but it was probably not a good decision by all of us. That set him back another couple of weeks.

“Since he’s gotten healthy, he’s got a tireless work ethic. I think he’s done a nice job addressing some of the issues he had in the first half. Sometimes it’s just a change of your glove position or changing your angle. He’s been able to work on those things.”

Right now, UConn is in position to have its best finish since joining Hockey East. The team has hosted playoff games under the old 11- or 12-team playoff format, but leaping to the top four in the league has never come to fruition. That’s what is on the line the next two weekends as UConn looks to take the next step forward as a program.

Hockey East’s Hobey candidates

In an earlier column this week, I discussed with my colleague Paula Weston how Providence’s struggles of late could hurt two of the league’s top Hobey Baker candidates – Jack Dugan, the nation’s points leader, and teammate Tyce Thompson, who has been red-hot scoring goals this season.

Those two hardly represent the crop of top players in the league right now. One who is emerging from a top player to an absolute standout is UMass forward John Leonard, who potted four goals last weekend against UMass Lowell.

Though Leonard only has 31 points, 24 of those are goals. He’s become an elite player who always seems to be in the right position to score.

Additionally, it’s difficult not to mention the goaltenders. Jeremy Swayman for Maine has truly helped carry the Black Bears to what could be their best season in almost a decade. He leads the nation in shots faced (1,089) and saves (1,021) and his .938 save percentage is tied for second nationally.

Tyler Wall at UMass Lowell also needs a mention as he has backboned his team to the NCAA bubble at this point. He may not see the same amount of shots as Swayman (no one in the nation is even close), Wall does play for a team that is often outshot. His .930 save percentage goes a long way to making this River Hawks team successful and, if his numbers are good enough for a Hobey nod, he definitely will be a Mike Richter Award finalist.

Hockey East and CBS

Many of you may have seen Wednesday’s announcement of a streaming deal between Hockey East and CBS All Access. If you’re confused, you’re not alone.

Yes, you as fans have been able to access most Hockey East games on the CBS All Access platform at a very reasonable price of as low as $5.99 a month. And you’ll be able to do that for, at a minimum, two more years.

What confuses people is why the announcement today. The answer is probably simpler than one would believe as today’s announcement simply formalized the deal after all the lawyers had a chance to give their say to the process.

What is overlooked, though, is how the deal could shape the league going forward. Until this season, all Hockey East schools owned their own streaming rights. Some were free while some came at a cost. This year, Hockey East fell in line with other conferences and took control of the deal, something that makes sense for many of the parties involved.

Obviously, having one hub for all Hockey East games is smart and the low monthly rate is very competitive, but, though the league won’t confirm this, sources say this deal is very beneficial financially to Hockey East, somewhere to the tune of six digits.

That type of financial payout – along with the NESN rights deal which also provides the league with some cash – can ease some of the recent financial burdens of the league and, if managed correctly, can be reinvested into the schools, all of which have the responsibility of producing the broadcasts to further improve the product delivered to the consumer.

In an age where cord cutting is becoming increasingly more prevalent, Hockey East seems to be placing the conference in a good position to access more and more games online.