Two white-knuckle weekends against Providence and Boston University have come to a successful conclusion for the Eagles, with BC regaining their footing and moving up into the top 10 in the pairwise rankings after taking 6 of 8 possible points. The focus now shifts to a pair of games BC will be expected to win: Friday night at UMass, and Saturday night at home vs. UConn.
The Eagles' two opponents this weekend are examples of programs heading in opposite directions.
In 2002-03, the UMass Minutemen put together their first winning season since joining Hockey East, and it looked like Toot Cahoon would have UMass climbing the ranks of the league. Their successful run peaked in 2006-07 when Jonathan Quick backstopped the Minutemen to an appearance in the NCAA tournament and a 21-13-5 record. Hockey East observers had long speculated that Massachusetts' flagship state university would be able to compete and succeed in a sport with so much homegrown talent, and it looked like it was finally happening.
UMass had a few decent seasons after Quick left and continued to be one of the highest-drawing teams in the league over the next few years, but they were never able to put it all together and make another tournament run. After fading down the stretch and missing the tournament in 2010 (thanks in part to BC's demolition of UMass in the Operation 8000 game), the bottom fell out for Cahoon, and two horrible seasons saw his run at UMass come to an end.
That's when things got very, very frustrating for UMass fans. Cahoon's departure came amid rumors of his consternation with lack of institutional support for the men's hockey program, at a school where basketball reigns supreme and where the University recently sunk millions of dollars and countless man hours into a quixotic effort at going D1A in football. UMass's first two attempts to replace Cahoon ended in egg in the face for the program.
Depending on who you believe, they were either close to landing Quinnipiac head coach Rand Pecknold, or Pecknold was merely playing them to get more money out of Quinnipiac. Either way, what would have been a splash hire for UMass ended in frustration as UMass's offer to Pecknold was followed by Quinnipiac offering him a raise and retaining his services. Pecknold took Quinnipiac to the national title game in 2013 and has them atop the national rankings this year. UMass also approached Paul Pearl, head coach of Holy Cross, who turned them down and decided instead to make his next career move becoming the associate head coach at Harvard.
Mike Cavanaugh was one of a series of untested options available when UMass finally did settle on a third choice candidate, going with Vermont associate coach John Micheletto. In year 4 under Micheletto, UMass continues to be stuck in the muck. They've won 9, 4, and 11 games in his first three seasons. Their 7-12-4 record as of now this year is probably a bit flattering and they're stuck in a tough skid right now. The always levelheaded and reliable Fear the Triangle, the voice of UMass hockey fandom on the 'net, is now calling for Micheletto's job, and he's not alone.
With BC and BU gobbling up the most elite local talent, with Notre Dame being Notre Dame, and with UMass-Lowell and Providence recently making home run hires in their last coaching searches, UMass is in an unenviable position of having to climb past a number of well-positioned programs if they're to become relevant again in Hockey East—not unlike the situation BC finds itself in in basketball. Another problem they face now is the emergence of UConn.
I was skeptical of how the UConn hockey experience would go, but in their first year in Hockey East, they burst on to the scene, leading the league in attendance at the XL Center and picking up several signature wins en route to a decent season. Mike Cavanaugh moved over to UConn after a long and successful tenure as Jerry York's right hand man prior to UConn's last season in Atlantic Hockey, winning 18 games. A 10-19-7 mark last year in their HEA debut was not bad (better, in fact, than UMass or Maine) and they currently sit sixth in Hockey East at 8-13-2.
In addition to playing competitive hockey on the ice, UConn is also recruiting well. They've snatched a few USNTDP prospects and also landed a late BU decommit, Max Letunov, who leads the Huskies in points with 25 in 23 games.
It helps for UConn that they have a "brand name" athletic program, something UNH, Maine and UMass can't really match. But what's also helped is the institutional support of both the school and the fanbase. It was pretty clear from day one that they were taking hockey seriously and have hopes of making it a big part of their athletic program. You haven't really gotten that same sense out of UMass in a long time. If UConn successfully pulls the trigger on building a modern, on-campus hockey facility, they could easily become a serious national player.
The Huskies also made the right coaching hire, capitalizing on a mistake that quite frankly a number of programs made over the years passing on Cavanaugh. One wonders where Northeastern might be now if they had hired Cav in 2011, the year they went with Jim Madigan while UMass Lowell and Providence landed Norm Bazin and Nate Leaman.
UConn is now making the path to the top even more difficult for programs like UMass and Northeastern, who have long struggled in the shadow of BC and BU. While things can change rapidly in college hockey, it certainly feels like UConn is a lot closer to being a tournament team than UMass is.
The Eagles will get a firsthand look at both teams this weekend: they play at Amherst on Friday night, then host UConn on Saturday. The BC-UConn game is expected to fetch a sellout crowd.