At first glance, UConn men’s hockey’s Ruslan Iskhakov doesn’t look like much — especially not for a hockey player. He stands at just 5-foot-7 with a wiry frame that doesn’t exactly help his case. But as he approaches the midway point in his career in Storrs (assuming he goes pro after his junior season), Iskhakov is quietly beginning to emerge as one of the top forwards in the program’s Hockey East history.
His stats aren’t mind-boggling, just 31 points in 48 career games. This past weekend at Dartmouth in the Ledyard Classic, Iskhakov only recorded one point across the two games and yet head coach Mike Cavanaugh still had high praise for his performance.
“I thought this was the best weekend he’s had since he’s been at UConn,” the Huskies’ head coach said after the loss to Dartmouth.
What Iskhakov lacks in size, he makes up for in raw skill. His puck-handling abilities are second-to-none in the nation while his agility on the skates can make him nearly impossible to defend. Iskhakov put that on display in his lone goal at Dartmouth with a filthy move that sent the goaltender the wrong way on a breakaway.
But at the same time, Iskhakov plays the blue collar style of play that Cavanaugh preaches and is one of the team’s most physical players despite his small stature.
“Physicality isn’t just hitting a guy through the boards. It’s competing for pucks one on one and Ruslan does that as well as anybody,” Cavanaugh said. “When you watch him go in for a puck battle, he goes in hard. I think a lot of times (people) think physicality is Zdeno Chara or Scott Stevens with big open-ice hits but it’s how hard you go in to win a puck battle. Do you play on the inside? Are you going to the net? Getting position on a defender and staying in front of the net and taking a wack at a rebound? I think Ruslan did that really well.”
When Iskhakov is playing up to his full potential, he has the ability to be a game-wrecker in a way we’ve rarely seen at UConn. Plenty of high-end talent comes through the XL Center every season during Hockey East play but most of those players are on the opposing team.
For the Huskies, the high-water mark for talent is Max Letunov and Tage Thompson. Iskhakov isn’t quite at that level — at least not yet. But his potential is dizzying. By the time Iskhakov is finished in Storrs, he could potentially be regarded as one of the best players in program history. He’s that good.
“(Letunov and Thompson are) two of the better players that we’ve had,” Cavanaugh said. “I think when it’s all said and done, Ruslan can probably be in that conversation as well.”
Northeastern will be one of UConn’s toughest tests of the season as the other Huskies come into the game ranked No. 12 in Pairwise. Northeastern has a stingy defense ranked 17th in the country with just 2.39 goals allowed per game while its offense ranks 13th in the country at 3.17 goals per game. It also features the second-best penalty kill in the nation, allowing just five goals on 73 chances (.932 percent).
“I think their transition game is one of the best in Hockey East,” Cavanaugh said. “They’re just so explosive up front with Tyler Madden and Zach Solow and Matt Filipe, on the back end Ryan Shea has been a four-year, all-league type defenseman. They’re very, very mobile back there — Jayden Struble and Shea. They’re just a really explosive team offensively and they’re a team that if you don’t manage the puck, especially in the neutral zone, they’ll make you pay.”
After Tomas Vomacka and a handful of other players dealt with illness last weekend, UConn seems to be past that and moving towards full health. Cavanaugh said the team had a full practice “for the most part” on Tuesday and is hoping to have a full squad for Friday night.