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UConn men’s hockey’s top veteran forwards beginning to come alive

As the stretch run begins, the Huskies’ most important players are starting to play their best hockey.

Ian Bethune/The UConn Blog

As the final month of the regular season begins, UConn men’s hockey has positioned itself well for the stretch run.

The Huskies are 12-11-0 overall and in seventh place in the Hockey East standings with 23 points. However, they have played just 14 league games — fewer than every team above them — and still stand just six points out of third place and 11 points out of first. UConn is also one game back in the loss column on first-place UMass Lowell and two games back on second-place UMass.

The Huskies have plenty of work to still do over the final 10 games, but they’ve kept themselves in the hunt despite a major shortcoming: Three of UConn’s top veteran forwards have underproduced to this point in the season.

Senior Jonny Evans — who became the program’s first Division I All-American last season with 14 goals and 15 assists in 23 games — has just four tallies and six helpers in 21 games this year. Junior Vladislav Firstov — arguably the most talented forward on the team whose presence on the ice transformed the Huskies’ offense in 2020-21 — has seven goals and seven assists but went 12 games without scoring. Lastly, senior Carter Turnbull — who tied for the team lead in goals with 12 as a sophomore and has a unique combination of finesse and power — has just five goals and two assists.

Luckily, UConn has gotten significant contributions from a few unexpected places. Senior Jachym Kondelik already tied his career high with eight goals and needs just two more points to set another new high mark while senior Marc Gatcomb has tied or surpassed his previous bests with six goals, nine assists and 15 points.

Sophomore Ryan Tverberg has been a revelation and leads the team with nine goals to go with nine assists and 18 points, while Hudson Schandor (two goals, nine assists) and Yale transfer Kevin O’Neil (four goals, 10 assists) have chipped in as well.

The Huskies have been balanced on offense, which has allowed them to stay competitive even without their veteran stars leading the way.

That could be changing for the better, though. Over the last few weeks, Evans, Firstov and Turnbull have all started to emerge from their respective funks.

Evans’ season has been the strangest of the three. For much of the season, he’s been at or near the top of the team’s leaderboard in shots but has struggled to find the back of the net.

After scoring seemingly at will last year, Evans recorded a goal and three assists in UConn’s first three games before falling into a rut. He scored just once in the final nine games before Christmas and only added two assists as well. The lack of goals weighed on Evans and as a result, he tried to do too much to find them.

“He had been pressing and when you press, sometimes you take shortcuts and you cheat a play,” head coach Mike Cavanaugh said of Evans. “That really doesn’t work a lot of times.”

The extended winter break due to UConn’s COVID outbreak helped Evans hit the reset button and since the second half began, his play has taken a noticeable step forward. He picked up an assist in the win over Boston College and then in overtime against New Hampshire, broke through to score the sudden-death game-winner. One game later, Evans notched another in the win over Merrimack.

While the production still isn’t eye-popping, Evans is back to performing at a high level.

“I think he had to just get back to just playing,” Cavanaugh said. “‘Hey, I’m going to start in my own defensive zone and I’m going to play really well in this zone and then through the neutral zone, I’m going to be good and then when the puck gets in the offensive zone, I’m going to have detail in my offensive game as well and I’m not going to try to do too much. I’m just going to make the play that’s there.’ I think that’s what he’s been doing lately.”

As for Firstov, he was electric at the start of the year. In UConn’s first two games, he was the best player on the ice by a mile as he scored three goals and looked like a genuine Hobey Baker candidate. Firstov was dangerous with the puck on his stick, scoring one goal on a rip from the face-off circle, another from behind the net that banked off the goalie’s back and the third on a sweet deke in front the net with a defenseman on him.

A few games later, Firstov scored in back-to-back games at Dartmouth and Maine before going silent. Over the Huskies’ next 12 contests, he failed to light the lamp.

Firstov started to show signs of life in UConn’s 3-1 loss at AIC in January, though. He tried to make plays on his own through the defense and even succeeded a few times. Even when the junior lost the puck, it was clear that his confidence had returned.

During the Connecticut Ice Festival, Firstov was rewarded with two goals against Yale. He attacked the game and hit the ice with the intention of making a play — which is exactly what Cavanaugh wants from him.

“When Vlad’s playing well, he’s skating and he’s not hoping the game comes to him,” the coach said. “He’s going out, making things happen. That’s what Vlad needs to do...I think that’s what he’s realizing now.”

While both Evans and Firstov dealt with ups and downs through the current campaign, Turnbull’s drought dated back to last season. Over the final nine games in 2020-21, he had just one goal and one assist. Then, Turnbull failed to record a single point over the first five games this year and didn’t score until the season’s seventh contest.

Something clicked for the senior late in the first half, though. Turnbull started to skate better, put himself in the right spots and just looked like a more dangerous player. He picked up a goal and an assist against Colgate and carried that level of play into the new year. Though Turnbull’s production still isn’t standing out — he has just three goals in nine second-half contests — he’s still been one of UConn’s top players on a regular basis.

“He’s come back and been one of our best forwards,” Cavanaugh said after the loss to AIC.

If Evans, Firstov and Turnbull can maintain their current level of play — especially if they can add more production — that’ll make the Huskies’ already-strong secondary scoring even more potent.

“When the other teams are worried about a certain player or a certain line, that’s always a benefit to your team because maybe they forget about other guys,” Cavanaugh said.

Historically, UConn has been at its best in the month of February. Over the last four seasons, the Huskies have gone 14-11-0 in the month, a .560 winning percentage, compared to 38-54-0 the rest of the season, just a .410 winning percentage.

If the recent form of Evans, Firstov and Turnbull is any indication, UConn will be in great shape to continue that trend this season.