Connecticut Ice tournament preview

With the inaugural Connecticut Ice tournament this weekend, Editor-in-Chief Bryan Murphy, Associate Sports Editor Riley Millette and Staff Writer Jacob Shiffer previewed the four teams participating

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Quinnipiac Bobcats

The first half of the season, Quinnipiac did not look like the formidable foe people expected. However, after a break for the holidays, the Bobcats are back and seeking the first ever Connecticut Ice tournament title.

The Bobcats are 6-1-0 since returning from the holidays, shooting up both the ECAC Hockey standings and the USCHO rankings. They are stuck in a four-way tie for third in the conference and have crept back into the rankings, recently getting named to the No. 17 spot this past Monday.

For Quinnipiac, the defense has been solid all season. Some blips here and there (7-2 loss to Harvard, 5-3 loss to Arizona State), but for a very young group on the back end, it’s held its own. It only allows an average of 2.37 goals per game, which places them fourth in the conference.

Morgan Tencza
Junior forward Odeen Tufto fires a shot past the Princeton goaltender.

The biggest difference from the first half to the second has been the offense. Exploding for an average of 3.90 goals per game since the break, it’s been the big names of the Bobcats that are performing at a high level.

Junior forward Odeen Tufto has paced the way with 22 assists, which leads ECAC Hockey. His 25 points place him second in the conference and he recently hit the 100 career point milestone.

Sophomore forward Wyatt Bongiovanni has proven himself to be the go-to goal scorer for the squad. He leads the team with 11 goals, and he only trails Yale sophomore forward Curtis Hall for the conference lead.

In the seven games played since the time off, three Bobcats have points in six of the seven — Tufto, senior forward Alex Whelan and sophomore defenseman Peter DiLiberatore.

Whelan, recently coming off a hat trick against Holy Cross on Friday, is second on the team in goals (eight) and tied for fourth in points (13) despite missing five games at the beginning of the season. DiLiberatore has come alive after a quiet end to the first half that saw him only notch one point in nine games. Since then, DiLiberatore has seven points in seven games and is arguably the best offensive weapon on the blue line.

Earlier in the season, the Bobcats had the problem of playing down to their opponents. Now, it seems like they’ve shaken off that habit, for the most part, and should have no trouble getting past an average team in UConn. The Huskies are currently under .500 and the Bobcats have not lost to their in-state foe in over five years. Quinnipiac seems to be the favorite to win this title and there is no reason to think it won’t. – B.M.

UConn Huskies

Despite the UConn Huskies’ sub-.500 record, the Huskies are to be taken seriously. They are coming off a two-game stretch in which they knocked off a University of Maine team that received votes in the national USCHO poll and the Northeastern Huskies, who are ranked 12th in the country. 

Freshman forward Vladislav Firstov has been clicking lately, as he contributed two goals in the team’s 3-2 win over Northeastern. He also scored one against UMaine, setting his goal tally for the season at nine, the highest on the team. He is a player to watch out for in the Connecticut Ice showdown against the Bobcats.

UConn Athletic Communications
Junior defenseman Adam Karashik handles the puck into the offensive zone.

Another standout for the Huskies has been senior forward Benjamin Freeman, the game-winning goal-scorer against Northeastern. Freeman has been a constant factor in the team’s attack all season leading the Huskies in assists. Freeman also dominated Northeastern in the circles, racking up 20 faceoff wins to only eight losses. Standing at 6-foot-5 and weighing in at 210 pounds, Freeman’s presence in the attack has been a significant weapon, and he will have to deliver in order to challenge Quinnipiac’s stout defense.

After a rocky start to the season for the Quinnipiac Bobcats, they have ripped off eight wins in their last nine games with their only loss coming against the first-place Clarkson Golden Knights. The hot streak propelled them up to the fifth spot in the ECAC and back into the USCHO rankings, coming in ranked 17th in the country.

Still, the history between these two teams speaks for itself. The Huskies are only 1-6 against the Bobcats, as their last win against Quinnipiac came more than five years ago. There have been four meetings between these teams since that game, which UConn has been outscored 18-6 in four losses.

Defense has been a struggle for UConn this season, as it hasn’t given up fewer than two goals in a game since Nov. 16, against UMass Lowell. In a matchup against a Quinnipiac team that is averaging almost four goals per contest, it looks all but certain that the Huskies will skate away from the first-ever Connecticut Ice tournament with a loss. – R.M.

Yale Bulldogs

The Yale Bulldogs head into the Connecticut Ice Tournament with an 8-9 overall record and a 6-6 record in ECAC play. However, their tough start to the season is responsible for the mediocre record. They posted a 2-6 record through their first eight conference games while giving up an average of four goals per game.

Since then, they’ve posted a 7-3 record including 4-0 in conference play. Their defense and goaltending has improved as they gave up just two goals between their four wins. Coming into the Connecticut Ice tournament, the Bulldogs won back-to-back games over the Union Dutchmen and Rensselaer Engineers by a combined score of 9-1.

Sophomore forward Curtis Hall leads the Bulldogs. The second-year player has 14 points and leads the team and conference in goals with 12. Hall was recently named ECAC Player of the Week after he scored four goals and an assist in the team’s homestand against Union and Rensselaer.

Hall is followed closely behind by fellow sophomore forward Justin Pearson and junior forward Tyler Welsh, who both have 12 points and seven assists apiece. Among defensemen, the player to watch will be senior defenseman Billy Sweezy, who leads the team in blocked shots. Back in November, Sweezy blocked a career-high seven shots against the Dartmouth Big Green.

In net for the Bulldogs is senior goaltender Corbin Kaczperski, who was just named ECAC Goalie of the Week after allowing just one goal in the team’s last two games. However, Kaczperski’s .899 save percentage and 2.90 goals against average are nothing to write home about, with both stats placing him in the bottom tier of the ECAC. 

But recently, he’s had a streak of success. He’s allowed just one goal or less in six of his last nine games while posting an impressive .939 save percentage in that same span.

The Bulldogs will match up against the Sacred Heart Pioneers for their first game. They’re 6-1 all-time against the Pioneers including a 3-1 victory last season. While the Pioneers are no walkovers with their 14-8-2 record, the Bulldogs should take comfort knowing they start the weekend against an opponent they’ve had success against.

If the Bulldogs can continue this hot streak, they’ll be a tough opponent at Connecticut Ice. In their last four conference games, they’ve outscored their opponents 15-2. This mid-season tournament could be the turning point the Bulldogs need this season. And with a chance to face rival Quinnipiac, the Bulldogs will surely be motivated to take home the title. – J.S.

Sacred Heart

Sacred Heart has emerged as arguably the biggest threat in Atlantic Hockey this season, sitting atop the standings with a 13-6-1 conference record. They’ve seen time in the USCHO top 20 twice, sitting at the No. 20 ranking from Dec. 9 to Dec. 23. 

The brief appearance in the national rankings was thanks to a stretch of games between the end of November and the beginning of January in which the Pioneers won eight out of nine games. However, that momentum was slightly stifled this past weekend, with a tie and a loss to Canisius.

Sacred Heart Athletics
Senior forward Jason Cotton receives the puck and skates out of his defensive zone.

The biggest strength for this team is the offense. The Pioneers’ offense is far and beyond the best in Atlantic Hockey. It’s averaging 3.83 goals per game, nearly a full goal better than the second-place, and five of the top six point scorers in the conference belong to Sacred Heart. In total, seven of the top 10 scorers are Pioneers. 

At the top, with 26 points, is senior defenseman Mike Lee. Lee has been a playmaking machine this season. He leads the conference in assists with 22, along with the lead in plus/minus (+25). A native of Hamden, Lee comes into the Connecticut Ice tournament riding a five-game point streak. 

Senior forward Jason Cotton, Boston College captain and standout senior forward David Cotton’s brother, has racked up a conference-leading 15 goals in addition to nine assists. Tied with him with 24 points is junior forward Matt Tugnutt, who’s been a consistent asset to the offense. A balanced scorer and passer, Tugnutt has an even 12 goals and 12 assists this season. 

In addition to Lee, Cotton and Tugnutt, senior forward Austin McIlmurray and freshman forward Braeden Tuck have already surpassed the 20-point threshold. While each has 21 points, McIlmurray is second on the team in goals with 14 and Tuck is second on the team in assists with 18. 

While Atlantic Hockey is considered to be the weakest conference in Division I hockey, Sacred Heart has a chance to make some noise in the Connecticut Ice tournament. It’s received a favorable matchup in Yale, as the Bulldogs have given up 3.05 goals per game, second worst in ECAC Hockey. If Sacred Heart’s offense can continue to stay hot, the Pioneers have a chance to make a run at the tournament’s first-ever championship. – B.M.