There have been two versions of the UConn men’s hockey offense this season: The one with Vladislav Firstov in the lineup, and the one without. It’s not just that the Huskies are better when they have their top players — that’s the case with every team in the nation — but the gulf between the two has been vast.
Firstov played in UConn’s opening weekend against UMass before shipping off to Russia’s World Juniors Camp. He missed the Huskies’ next seven games while away at the tournament and UConn’s offense struggled without him, tallying just 2.0 goals per game while only scoring more than two goals in a single game twice. It didn’t help that the Huskies’ power play was abysmal, converting on just 3-30 opportunities.
After Firstov returned for UConn’s Jan. 15 matchup against UNH, the team scored 4.62 goals per game and scored on 11-33 power plays over its next eight games before the sophomore forward got injured against Providence on Feb. 12.
In fact, his impact was immediate when UConn opened January with back-to-back series against UNH. Without him, the Huskies took just four of six points from UNH and scored three goals over the two games. When UConn played the Wildcats again with Firstov two weeks later, it tied a program record with 14 goals between the two games.
While Firstov wasn’t single-handedly responsible for that turnaround — the Huskies also added early enrollee Ryan Tverberg around the same time — he played a major part.
“It certainly helps when Vlad is back because that gives us another option on the wing,” Cavanaugh said after UConn’s 6-5 OT win over UNH. He and Carter [Turnbull] are both shooters and to have the option to go either side, that certainly helps us and makes us a little more dangerous.”
Firstov missed three games after suffering a lower-body injury against Providence and the Huskies lost two of those three games — including a 3-2 overtime defeat to BU where UConn failed to score over the final 45 minutes of the game — while going 1-12 on the power play.
Once he recovered, the Huskies scored on their first three power play chances against Providence and put up five goals overall — though he wasn’t actually on the ice for a single power play goal and only had one assist.
The latter is admittedly a small sample size but it’s still hard to chalk that sudden turnaround up to pure timing. Overall, UConn has played 22 games this season — 11 with Firstov, 10 without, and one where he left injured midway through.
When Firstov plays, the Huskies have scored 45 goals in those 11 games, good for 4.1 goals per game. Their power play has also excelled, converting on 14 of 49 chances (28.6 percent). When he’s absent, UConn’s offense has netted just 24 goals in 10 games, 2.4 per game. The power play is essentially non-existent as well, going just 4-43 (9.3 percent).
For reference, the best offense in the country belongs to North Dakota who averages 3.92 goals per game. If you count only the games where Firstove played, the Huskies’ power play percentage would rank third nationally. The numbers without him put them 39th (out of 51 teams) in goals per game and 48th in power play percentage.
Even if Firstov isn’t the one directly contributing goals, his presence alone helps UConn by putting everyone in the right spot in both the lineup and on the power play. He also draws more attention from opposing teams when he’s on the ice, which creates more opportunities for his teammates.
“He has a lot of composure. He’s strong on pucks, he doesn’t panic with it,” Cavanaugh said of Firstov. “He’s the type of kid who can make a pass to beat you and he can also shoot it.”
Even with the sophomore forward only available for half the season, UConn still finished fourth in Hockey East. As long as he stays healthy, there’s no telling what the Huskies could do this postseason with him in the lineup.