The UConn Huskies are hoping to have a Hockey East playoff spot, but this season's second half will give them a new beginning for a push behind their young talent.
In 2012, UConn announced it would be moving from Atlantic Hockey to Hockey East beginning in the 2014-15 season. UConn started its new era with a new coach, Mike Cavanaugh. Since the move, UConn has yet to win a conference playoff game, with its best season under Cavanaugh coming in 2017-18 when it tied for fifth in the conference.
UConn showed promise last year when it knocked off No. 2 UMass in the season finale, and that was the highest-ranked opponent UConn has defeated.
In the second half of last season, rookie goaltender Tomas Vomacka took over for 2015 New York Rangers draft pick, Adam Huska. Vomacka was named to the Hockey East All-Rookie team.
There was more promise for UConn last year when rookie Jachym Kondelik was second on the team in scoring. This year, the 2018 Nashville Predators' fourth-round pick is in the top three on the team in goals and points.
Although the Huskies finished above .500 at the break for the first time in their Hockey East history, the team is 0-4-1 coming out of it. UConn was crushed by Northeastern, 5-2, on Jan. 3 followed by a even worse loss to Merrimack, 6-2, on Jan. 7, before falling to Providence, 1-2.
"Quite frankly, the last two games started the same way and we start feeling sorry for ourselves," Cavanaugh said after losing to Merrimack. "Maybe that's confidence, maybe not. Instead of playing downhill, we're playing uphill all game. Unfortunately, we're letting one goal turn into two goals, turn into three goals instead of just saying, 'Okay, they scored a goal, let's get back to what we do well.' Maybe that's confidence, I don't know. I know it's not the way we wanted to play."
Vomacka has followed up his strong freshman campaign by posting below-par numbers. The Nashville Predators' 2017 fifth-round pick has shown signs of brilliance this season with more than 40 saves against Sacred Heart and Boston College. However, in 14 of 20 games, he's allowed three or more goals and his save percentage is .886.
UConn doesn't fare too much better offensively. The team has zero players in Hockey East's top 10 in goals, points, or assists.
The offensive burden is eased by the Minnesota Wild's 2019 second-round draft choice Vladislav Firstov, who is top 10 in Hockey East freshman scoring. Firstov is tied for the team lead in goals.
Every time UConn takes the ice, all eyes are on New York Islanders' 2018 second-round pick Ruslan Iskhakov. His stats aren't tantalizing -- though he's third on the team in points -- but nobody can underestimate his raw talent.
At 5-foot-7, people may see Iskhakov's size as problematic. The last time UConn faced off against Quinnipiac -- its Connecticut Ice first-round matchup -- Iskhakov was knocked out cold by former Quinnipiac defenseman Brogan Rafferty. He missed a week and finished the season strong with 13 points in his final nine games.
"[Iskhakov] has a high IQ out there, a very deceptive player," Islanders general manager Lou Lamoriello said. "He adjusted and grew during his [freshman] season."
A revenge victory against Quinnipiac might be what UConn needs to regain its confidence in the second half of the season, as it looks to squeeze into the Hockey East playoffs.