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‘I KNEW IT WOULD COME’

04

Two times, Dmitry Zavgorodniy heard his name announced following a Heat goal, signaling his first AHL point.

Two times, in the postgame box score, there were zeroes next to his name in the No. 17 row.

For a prospect like Zavgorodniy, whose play with the QMJHL’s Rimouski Oceanic led to a seventh-round selection by the Calgary Flames in 2018, seeing his name at the bottom of the stats page was something new.

“Of course, it was hard,” said Zavgorodniy. “It was tough. I was in the right spots doing the right things, but the (scoring) changed. I just had to do a better job. I’d get frustrated, but would try not to think about it, stay positive, do as best I can.”

In his final junior season, Zavgorodniy finished third on the Océanic with 67 points. That figure was good for third-most on the squad, trailing Bonston’s 2017 sixth-round selection Cedric Paré’s 88 points and Alexis Lafrienière – who you may have heard of – with 112.

Prior to coming to Stockton, the Omsk, Russia native notched three assists in six games while on loan with SKA St. Petersburg of the KHL. He flashed in preseason camp, and it appeared he was going to hit the ice without a hitch in the AHL.

Nineteen games in, his score line read the same as it had at prior to puck drop: zero goals, zero assists, zero points.

“I knew (the pro game) would be hard,” said Zavgorodniy. “I knew I’d need to adjust my game and get better a lot. I played in the KHL, started the season there, so I had an idea of coming here what it was going to be. I knew it was going to be harder than junior. I was expecting it.”

It was prior to the Heat’s 20th game of the season that Cail MacLean decided to meet with Zavgorodniy and propose an idea: take a step back, take a breath, watch a game and then get back at it.

“I’ve said this to everyone – he’s a quality human being,” said MacLean. “The resilience he’s shown through this has been really, really good. He’s a guy who really feels it deep inside, and a lot of his identity is tied to producing offensively. Despite all of that, he’s come and he’s worked and he’s had a positive attitude. He’s cared about his team and he’s done the right things.”

Zavgorodniy re-entered the mix in the second game of three bouts with Laval, a contest that ended in a 4-2 setback, still without a point but was noticeably more visible around the puck. He even very nearly was credited with his first pro goal, his stick colliding with center Mark Simpson’s on a puck that found the back of the net.

It was a promising step, but for the first-year forward was still not what he was hoping.

“I saw some mistakes, some stuff that I can apply to my game,” said Zavgordniy following his return to the lineup about his game as an observer. “I have more time than I’d think sometimes. (I saw) what I could do better, what was open.”

With their backs to the wall in Tuesday’s road trip finale, it was the rookie who helped deliver what could prove to be a season-altering score. His first pro point – a deflection that ended up on the stick of Adam Ruzicka, who found the back of the net – helped lead the Heat to a come-from-behind victory over the Canadian Division-leading Laval Rocket, giving the Heat some momentum into an eight-day gap between games.

“I’ve still got the monkey on my back about the goal,” he said with a laugh. “I knew the scoring was going to come, it was just taking some time. It was about making adjustments and trying to keep working hard on everything – the D zone, the neutral zone too – working on details. I knew it would come, I wasn’t worried.”

Now the mandate for Zavgorodniy is to continue building, carrying that momentum into more production, or even just more solid play like he’s had through the last six periods. He’ll look to become more assertive, using his speed to create offense while remaining responsible defensively.

That’s how he’d always known himself on the ice, and now free from one of the most challenging stretches of his career, it’s what he’ll aim to return to.

“He’s learning a new game,” said MacLean. “He’s an up-and-coming young man. We try to stress with him, there’s lots of players who have been in his shoes and have had similar kind of things happen, and they’ve gone on to do great things at this level and beyond. I think it says a lot about what kind of character he brings to the table, and it’s an indication where the young man might be able to go in the future. He could end at one assist this season, and it doesn’t mean he won’t have tons of production next year, either. It’s a matter of how much intestinal fortitude he’ll show over these next eight games and get everything he can out of it.”

MacLean has been around, has seen players grow into top-flight AHL skaters and into regulars in the NHL. He sees some Andrew Mangiapane in Zavgorodniy – the feet, the hands, the strength. He knows that there’s more to come from the 20-year-old.

It’s just a matter of taking advantage of the fresh start, like he has over the past couple of games, and continuing the upward trajectory.

“When your life’s work is about creating offense and doing those things, sometimes it can weight pretty heavy when you don’t do it,” said MacLean. “Once you accomplish it and it starts to go for you and you suddenly lose that monkey off your back, now you’re faster, you’re more intuitive and things really pick up.

“I can see that happening with him as he gets comfortable and gets some success, he’s going to be really good.”

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