AHA PLAYOFFS COMING
Interim David Berard leads UConn to conference tourney
Published: Thursday, March 14, 2013
Updated: Thursday, March 14, 2013 23:03
Bruce Marshall was the head coach of the UConn men’s hockey team for 25 years. In that time, the former UConn captain compiled 339 wins, brought the program into Division I, and helped ensure an invitation for UConn to join Hockey East in 2014.
Marshall was set to be the man to bring the Huskies into the country’s elite conference and had started the development of a program with the potential to compete with the likes of Boston College, New Hampshire and Notre Dame on a yearly basis.
But when the UConn men’s hockey team hosts Robert Morris in the Atlantic Hockey Quarterfinals this weekend, it will not be UConn’s all-time wins leader behind the bench for the Huskies.
David Berard has quickly become one of the hottest names in college hockey. When Marshall took a leave of absence from the program on Nov. 6, UConn was 0-4-1 and looking set for another difficult season. The Huskies have been at or below .500 for over 10 years and were projected to finish seventh in Atlantic Hockey this season with a young squad.
Since Marshall’s leave of absence, which led to his resignation on Jan. 7, Berard has taken the Huskies to previously unknown heights.
The Huskies are 17-13-4, ensuring that they will finish with a winning record for the first time since the 1999-2000 season, and are the No. 4 seed in the Atlantic Hockey Tournament.
Since Jan. 1, the Huskies are 12-5-2, the fifth-best record in the country during that time behind only UMass-Lowell, Quinnipiac, Air Force and Wisconsin, and they are 8-2-2 since losing two games in a row, the second being a near-upset of No. 2 Quinnipiac in Hamden.
UConn has a chance to be a spoiler over the next two weeks. If the Huskies win their best-of-three series against Robert Morris, they would only need to win next Friday and Saturday to win the conference championship and earn an automatic berth to the NCAA Tournament for the first time ever.
If UConn can win the AHA championship, the conference could likely get two teams into the 16-team tournament, as a result of Niagara’s positioning in the Pairwise Rankings, which are used to guide the tournament’s selection committee. The regular season champions are currently No. 13 in the Pairwise.
It is a rare circumstance when powerhouses like Boston University, Wisconsin and Union could have their NCAA Tournament fate determined by the Huskies, but it is a testament to how far the program has come in only a few short months.
“For me, freshman year, if you had tweeted something about the worst five records, we would have been on there,” senior captain Sean Ambrosie said. “It’s definitely nice to be on the other end of it. It feels amazing.”
When Marshall stepped away from the program, the team could have responded by either folding up and letting the season turn to failure, or they could step their game up and make sure they were a force to be reckoned with. They chose to take the latter route.
“I think going through that situation, it made everyone pause for a second and realize that we have a good hockey team and if we want to turn this thing around, we’ve got to start to really commit to doing the things we need to do,” Berard said. “I’m not going to take the credit for going on the run. I think a lot of things played into it.”
Berard acknowledged the challenge of moving from the role of assistant coach to head coach for the first time, but he was able to turn to other coaches on campus for advice. One of the first people he turned to was men’s basketball coach Kevin Ollie, whose takeover situation was similar in many ways to Berard’s.
“I reached out to [Ollie] on a couple occasions via email because I did think that when the situation happened that it was similar in a lot of ways,” Berard said. “I kind of took the same approach that I don’t know what the future is going to bring. I don’t know what a month from now is going to bring, but I have an opportunity to coach this team and to show what we’re capable of and what I’m capable of as a coach.”
Like the men’s basketball team, the men’s hockey team has succeeded despite the adversity.
Everything has clicked since the transition, especially two components of the Huskies’ game that could be vital to success throughout the postseason.
The most noticeable of these elements is the play of redshirt junior goaltender Matt Grogan. When senior Garrett Bartus was forced to sit out in December due to academic struggles, Grogan – who had only played in 10 career games and only started two of those – took his game to new heights.
In 20 games this season, Grogan is 12-3-3 with a 1.86 goals against average and a .941 save percentage. Grogan’s goals against average is only 0.01 behind Niagara’s Carsen Chubak for the conference lead, and their save percentages are identical.
“Honestly, I haven’t changed a thing,” Grogan said. That’s what I’m trying not to do. I don’t want to change anything. Even last year I know I didn’t get any starts but I didn’t do anything differently last year that I am this year. I’m just doing the same things I always do.”
Special teams will play a big factor in this weekend’s series, and while the penalty kill has been consistent all season, the emergence of the power play since Berard’s takeover has been critical to success.
Last season, UConn was third in the nation on the power play with a 25.7 percent success rate. Under Marshall, UConn was 1-31 this season. But the power play has rose to the occasion of late, finally finding its form after without Cole Schneider, one of the best power play forwards in the country in 2011-12.
“When we win, typically we’ll score on the power play, and our penalty kill will be really good,” Berard said, “so that’s one of those keys for us to have success is our special teams have to be strong. But to know that you can score a goal or two on the power play loosens you up a little bit.”