April 9, 2013

From NEHJ: Making waves in Atlantic

By Allen Lessels

Goalie Matt Grogan finished with a stellar 1.93 goals-against average, .937 save percentage and .738 winning percentage. (Getty Images)

The University of Connecticut hockey team took a long and curvy road — a road a little less traveled perhaps than most in college hockey — to its best Atlantic Hockey Association season ever and best year overall in more than a decade.

The Huskies began the season using one workhorse of a starting goaltender and ended it with another. Those things happen during the course of a year, and while it might be a bit unusual, it’s certainly not unprecedented.

Then there was this: The Huskies started the season playing for one head coach and ended it playing for another.

They tackled one challenge after another and advanced to the Atlantic Hockey semifinals before being ousted by Mercyhurst, 4-1, at the Blue Cross Arena in Rochester. The Lakers, in turn, fell in the championship game to Canisius, 7-2.

“It comes to an abrupt end and the bus ride home is a little surreal,” said David Berard (West Warwick R.I.), who coached the Huskies most of the season after Bruce Marshall (West Boylston, Mass.) took a medical leave in early November and then resigned in early January. “You’re obviously disappointed and you try to think of anything you could have done differently and why it ended the way it did.”

Some of those feelings, he said, will linger for a while. But there are plenty of others, too.

“It’s bittersweet in a way, but I couldn’t be more proud of this group and what they accomplished with everything that was laid on them,” Berard said. “It could have gone two different ways and they chose to take this route, and it’s been a tremendous ride.”

The ride carried UConn to a 19-14-4 record, its best mark and most wins since a 19-16-1 campaign in 1999-2000. It was team’s first winning season since 2000 as well. The Huskies produced a fourth-place finish in Atlantic Hockey, their best result ever in the league, and earned not only home ice for the tournament but also a bye through the first round. UConn was 3-3-1 in nonconference games.

The off-ice stuff started pretty much as soon as the 2011-12 season ended. First, Cole Schneider, after scoring a whopping 23 goals and 45 points as a sophomore, opted to sign a professional contract.

Then, as had been rumored, UConn announced that it was going to leave Atlantic Hockey and join Hockey East beginning with the 2014-15 season. The coaches pointed that out to the players and stressed to the younger guys who were going to get to play in Hockey East that they owed it to the older guys to leave Atlantic Hockey on the highest note possible.

Then they went to work. The Huskies started the season 0-4-1 and survived. Marshall then announced he was taking a leave of absence and Berard, in his second year as Marshall’s assistant, took over.  

“We had some bumps in the road and some situations that could have caused us to get derailed and get distracted,” Berard said.

The Huskies played on. They started to win some games and evened out the record. They got to Christmas and goalie Matt Grogan, who is listed as a senior and had played little in his first three seasons, was playing well in practice and the limited game time action he did see and earned more time.

Grogan, who has a year of eligibility remaining and will be back next year, kept playing well and eventually won the starting job, which had been held for the last three years by Garrett Bartus. “Matt took full advantage of the opportunity put in front of him,” Berard said. “It was a classic case of perseverance and stick-to-it-tiveness and staying with something. … It says a lot about the kind of person he is. He has the work ethic and he’s a student of the game.”

The numbers weren’t bad either. Grogan finished just a tick or two behind Niagara’s Carsen Chubak in three key statistics: Grogan had a 1.93 goals-against average to Chubak’s 1.91; a .937 save percentage to Chubak’s .938; and a .738 winning percentage with his 14-4-3 record to Chubak’s .742.

Grogan leads a strong returning group that this year included nine freshmen, 10 sophomores and three juniors. Five seniors, including Bartus and leading scorer Sean Ambrosie, leave.

The next eight high scorers after Ambrosie return, starting with juniors Brant Harris (15-16-31) and Jordan Sims (10-21-31) and including sophomore Trevor Gerling (12-13-25), freshman Shawn Pauling (7-14-21) and sophomore Cody Sharib of Needham, Mass. (9-9-18).

Young defensemen such as freshmen Tyler Cooke and Kyle Huson and sophomores Jacob Poe and Skyler Smutek all played valuable minutes.

Berard and his staff have eight players committed to coming in this fall. Some, but not all, are on scholarship or partial deals as the school gives scholarships in the sport for the first time on its way to Hockey East and a full allotment.

UConn administrators said from the start that they will conduct a search for Marshall’s permanent replacement. Berard, who played at Providence and was a longtime assistant with the Friars, hopes he showed enough in the chance he was given as interim coach to make the search a very short one.

“He’s just been a great leader, and it trickled down into our locker room,” Grogan told the Hartford Courant. “We have a lot of great leaders, not just our captains, and I think that’s a carry-over from Coach Berard’s leadership.”

The Huskies have made some big strides in the past several seasons. They were 7-27-3 when Ambrosie and Bartus and the rest of this year’s seniors were freshmen. They’ve put up records of 15-18-4, 16-19-4 and now 19-14-4 since.

But there’s still plenty of work left to do, especially with their Hockey East debut fast approaching.

Having Canisius win its first Atlantic Hockey tournament title from the No. 7 seed and UMass-Lowell win Hockey East for the first time not only showcased the parity in the leagues, Berard said, but also paid notice to others.

“It showed the quality of the leagues and the fact a lot of different teams could win it and there are a lot of quality programs out there,” Berard said. “And yeah, why not us?” 

Air Force and RIT had owned the Atlantic tournament. Not this year.

“It doesn’t always have to be the same old teams,” Berard said. “I think it’s good for college hockey. For a program like ours, we’ll try to keep building and getting better and it gives us hope that we can be one of those teams: If we keep at it, and do the right things and stay with it, some day we can put ourselves in position to be in championship games and maybe go to the NCAA tournament.”

That’s the next road they want to take.

This article originally appeared in the April 2013 issue of New England Hockey Journal.