January 26, 2012

From NEHJ: UConn packs punch

By Allen Lessels

The University of Connecticut, as it turned out, gave early indications that its power play packed some prodigious potential. 

Sophomores Brant Harris (left) and Cole Schneider key UConn’s potent power play. (Steve Slade/UConn Athletics)

But little prepared Huskies watchers for what was to come Nov. 18 at the UConn Ice Arena.

Sure, the Huskies bounced back nicely the next night after a 1-for-10 effort on the power play in a season-opening 2-1 loss at Bowling Green. Sean Ambrosie, Brant Harris and Billy Latta each scored a power-play goal in the rematch — UConn went 3-for-7 for the game — and the Huskies came away with a 4-4 tie.

That was just a hint of what was ahead for a mid-November clash against Sacred Heart in Storrs when the Huskies, for a night at least, unleashed the perfect power play.

Five times the Huskies went on the power play. Five times they scored with the man advantage in an 8-3 victory.

“We were really following through with our systems,” said sophomore forward Brant Harris, who had the first goal, of the power play. “It was one of those games where everything fell into place.”

Sure did.

“We just got rolling and it seemed like every pass we made was a good one,” said Cole Schneider, another sophomore forward and UConn’s leading scorer. “After a game like that, you have a lot of confidence going into every power play and from then on you feel like you’re going to score on every power play.”

They haven’t and won’t, of course, but the Huskies in the first half put up good enough numbers to lead Atlantic Hockey in power-play percentage — by the thinnest of margins over Mercyhurst — at the break for the Christmas holiday.

At one point, UConn led the country in that department and it was still third best at mid-December.

UConn hit the break with 17 power-play goals in 66 chances for a mark of 25.8 percent.

“If you’re at 25 percent, scoring on one out of four, you’ve got to be pretty happy with that,” UConn coach Bruce Marshall said. “Teams are spending a lot more time working on killing penalties these days.”

To put those numbers in perspective, UConn scored 20 power-play goals all season in 171 chances for a rate of 11.7 percent two years ago. That was next-to-last in the league for success.

The Huskies boosted those numbers to 27 goals in 151 chances, for 17.9 percent, last season and have kept improving this season, at least through the first half..

“We’ve been moving the puck real well on the power play and guys are just finding each other right now, and that makes it easier to put the puck in the net,” Schneider said. “And a lot of other guys are working hard to get us chances on the power play.”

UConn (5-9-2 overall) has been moving the puck with a purpose.

“If you hold onto the puck and stickhandle it right there, you’re not baiting anyone,” Marshall said. “You have to move the puck and get them to react to the puck and move. You want to get them a little disorganized and distracted, and when you do, you have to try and make the most of it.”

Schneider, who sets up along the half wall, and defenseman Alex Gerke out front set the tone of the power play and often determine a play that might be run, Harris said.

Ambrosie and Latta generally join that trio on the power play.

It takes all five working together to make the power play go, Marshall said.

“This group really needs the five guys to make it work,” he said. “Sidney Crosby, I guess, can dingle and dangle and make it happen, but we need a unit all working together. I think they’ve come to appreciate one another now and realize if they use one another, they’ll get more opportunities.”

All five will be around at least one more season. Gerke and Ambrosie are juniors, while Schneider, Harris and Latta are all sophomores.

Gerke had a huge game against Sacred Heart with three goals, all on the power play, and two assists. One of the assists came at even strength.

“I can’t remember the last time I saw a defenseman get a hat trick,” Marshall said.

“He’s really good at sneaking back door and finding a seam for a pass from Ambrosie or Schneider or someone else,” Harris said.

“Taking slap shots into five different corners in a skills competition is not his game,” Marshall said. “He is a sneaky kind of guy on the back door. He’s more opportunistic and looks to see what’s there, and he’s going to take it from there.”

Harris sticks around the slot area for the most part and has been the big gun on the power play. Seven of his 11 goals have come a man up.

“If his goals are from more than five feet away from the net, I’d be surprised,” Marshall said. “Brant gets his nose dirty and gets in there.”

Harris and Schneider work well together.

“We’ve been throwing up some points, which is nice,” Harris said. “Hopefully, we’ll get some more points and more importantly help to get wins for the club. … Cole’s a pretty well-rounded player. He likes to stretch a zone, and he creates plays off the rush and he’s hard on defensemen when he’s coming with a lot of speed. He’s a menace for a defenseman, I guess.”

Schneider, who led UConn in scoring last season with 13 goals and 20 assists in 37 games, is back atop the charts again at 5-12-17 in 16 games. Harris is close behind in scoring and leads the team in goals at 11-4-15.

“Brant’s tough to play against,” Schneider said. “He’s going to work harder than you, and he’s going to put the puck in the net. He shoots it hard and then he goes to the net and finds the puck.”

Opponents are finding the Huskies tough to play against on the power play, in particular.

The five goals in five chances against Sacred Heart might skew the numbers a bit, but those things balance out in the end and the overall numbers show that the power play is doing pretty well, Marshall said.

Not that he or his team are content or about to sit back and enjoy the moment.

“It’s a young team and it’s grown,” Marshall said. “But it’s still got some growing to do and they know it’s not going to be easy every night. Five-for-five can make you think you’re pretty good and you can go 0-for-20 pretty quickly.”

This article originally appeared in the January 2012 issue of New England Hockey Journal.

Allen Lessels can be reached at feedback@hockeyjournal.com