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How UConn women's hockey recovered from early setbacks to win Hockey East

The Huskies failed to win their first three league games, then didn't lose another for three months.

Photo: Ian Bethune

How to watch

Date: Saturday, Mar. 2

Time: 1 p.m. ET

Location: Toscano Family Ice Forum, Storrs, CT


Stream: ESPN+

Holy Cross Crusaders

Record: 8-23-3 (4-20-3 Hockey East)

Location: Worcester, MA

Head coach: Katie Lachapelle (fifth season)

Seed: 10th

How UConn recovered from slow start to win Hockey East

Considering UConn won the Hockey East regular season title with an 18-4-4 record in league play which featured a 21-game unbeaten streak, it’s easy to forget how it all started.

Following an impressive win and a draw at Penn State to open the season, the Huskies got swept by Boston College in their first Hockey East games and then dropped their next contest to UNH at home to extend the losing skid to three.

Despite the 0-3-0 start to league play, UConn didn’t panic.

“We have a lot of freshmen, so I'm not saying that's the only factor but it does take time to adjust,” fifth-year defense Cam Wong explained. “I think those three games lit something under our bums. It was a perfect awakening and it happened early in the season, so that was perfect for us.”

The Huskies also made a few tweaks. Through their first five games, they averaged just 1.4 goals and were shut out by UNH. Head coach Chris MacKenzie shook up the lines to find the right combinations.

It worked. UConn responded by beating the Wildcats 4-0 in the second game of the weekend and then handed Providence a 6-1 defeat in its next contests. The Huskies have rolled with those lines ever since.

“We just switched up the lines, found some offense there and kind of rolled with it,” MacKenzie said. “There's been changes intermittently with injuries and different things but that combination is what we stuck with after those three losses.”

It took nearly three months for UConn to lose in Hockey East play again. The Huskies went 17-0-4 in the conference and only dropped three games to anyone in that stretch — two at No. 4 Minnesota and another against No. 9 Quinnipiac.

Yet while the offense is what helped UConn take off, the defense provided the foundation. The team allowed the second-fewest goals in the nation with 43 in 34 games and pitched the third-most shutouts with 11.

The goaltending tandem of Tia Chan (1.43 GAA, .947 save percentage in 21 starts) and Megan Warrener (a 1.01 GAA and .951 save percentage in 14 starts that ranks first and third in the country, respectively) backstopped an already strong defensive squad.

“Traditionally, we've been a pretty good defensive team,” MacKenzie said. “We have great goaltending.”

Although UConn doesn’t have a high-powered offense — its 84 goals are 22nd out of 44 teams in the nation — it has a balanced group. Jada Habisch leads the way with 15 goals while Kathryn Stockdale has 10, but nobody else has reached double-digits. However, the Huskies have nine other players with at least four goals.

“We've had contributions from everyone pretty steadily,” MacKenzie said. “We don't have a superstar that we have to lean on all the time. It’s just a group of players that really come together. It’s somebody new every week that steps up.”

This isn’t a UConn team that came out of nowhere to claim the first Hockey East title in school history. The Huskies have been on the rise for years and are finally experiencing a long-awaited breakthrough.

In 2022, UConn had a veteran-laden team that went 24-9-4 overall, finished third in Hockey East, and got to the championship game of the conference tournament. Despite losing so many key contributors to graduation, the Huskies didn’t take a major step back, instead going 18-13-4 overall while landing fifth in the standings.

Meanwhile, those two seasons were built on the back of what MacKenzie’s first eight teams accomplished — including two trips to the title game. This type of year has been a long time coming.

“It's just a culmination of a lot of work,” MacKenzie said. “A lot of players that have come through — even before myself, the other coaches, the other players — we've just steadily elevated the program. This is the summation of it all.”

Yet the coach quickly passed all the credit onto his players.

“This group in particular, very consistent in their approach every day, player-led,” he said. “As a coach, I didn't have to talk about accountability or standards, the players led the way on that.”

The job isn’t done, though. UConn still has to win the Hockey East Playoffs to reach the first NCAA Tournament in program history. That remains the ultimate goal — even if it’s not front of mind at the moment.

For now, the Huskies have to focus on a quarterfinal matchup with Holy Cross on Saturday at Toscano Family Ice Forum. While the Crusaders managed just four league wins during the regular season, they pulled off an upset of Boston University in the first round. UConn knows not to take any game during this time of year lightly.

“What's at stake is really a 60-minute season on the line. You want to play for another 60 minutes. Survive and advance — that's a term I'm sure we've all heard here at UConn,” MacKenzie explained. “This league in particular, every night anyone can beat anyone. You don't want to look past anything. You have to take care of that next shift, that next period.”

As much as the Huskies celebrated their new piece of hardware last weekend, they’ve turned the page to the next task at hand. Eventually, they’ll take the time to appreciate what they’ve already accomplished this season but if all goes according to plan, they’ll have more to celebrate.

“We'll enjoy it, probably reflect a lot more on it at the end of the year,” MacKenzie said. “But now there's a conference tournament here, so there's always another standard and another level to reach. I think that's what we're striving for here in the next few weeks.”