After enjoying its first winning campaign since 2007-08 last season, the Thomas Jefferson hockey team was expected to take another leap into the league's elite this season.
Jaguars coach Bill Crousey said his team has been a little inconsistent this season, but when Thomas Jefferson (6-3-1) is clicking on all cylinders, like it was in its first two games against Mars Area and South Fayette and last week against Deer Lakes, the Jaguars look like a Penguins Cup title contender.
"When we're playing our best is when we have solid team play and good puck movement," Crousey said. "When we do that, we're tough for anyone to beat.
"We also need to get everyone involved, not just the guys we count on."
The four players the Jaguars count on the most are forwards Zach Uhlyar, Nick Tamburi, Tommy Kimmick and Brendan Mason.
Uhlyar is the catalyst. He finished third in Class A last season with 67 points and entered this week tied for third in the class with 22 points (nine goals, 13 assists). His linemate, Tamburi, also has 22 points (13 goals, nine assists).
"When Zach's at his best, he sees the ice really well and makes other players better," Crousey said. "And Nick, his hustle and determination is off the charts. He's really fun to watch because he never stops."
Uhlyar and Tamburi have played on the same line together on amateur teams since the first grade, but this season is the first time the two have been paired together for the Jaguars.
"We know each other well on the ice," Uhlyar said. "I'm always looking for him on the ice and he's looking for me. We don't even need to be looking sometimes. We'll do behind-the-back passes. We just count on each other to make the right decisions."
Kimmick and Mason play on the team's second line and have been nearly as productive. Kimmick has nine goals, including a team-leading four on the power play, and nine assists, while Mason has seven goals and 10 assists.
Combined, the quartet has scored 38 goals entering the week, which is more than every team in Class A outside of Quaker Valley and Mars.
But the four have gotten help from underclassmen, too. Uhlyar and Tamburi's third linemate this season has alternated between two freshmen -- Dominic Tamburi, Nick's brother, and Daniel Harrold. The duo has combined for five goals and five assists.
"I think all the underclassmen have really stepped up this year," Uhlyar said. "They all came in fighting for spots and have really stepped up and done what it takes to win.
"Even the freshmen have stepped up really big. They've been putting points up for us."
The team does have experience on the back end in senior defenseman Kevin Ringling, junior blue-liner Bradley Delenko and senior netminder Nick Ripepi. Ripepi led Class A in wins last season, and is 4-3 with an .893 save percentage and 2.96 goals-against average this season. Backup Jordan Blosi is 2-0 with one shutout.
But the defense has faltered in the team's three losses, giving up 18 goals, as opposed to just 11 in the other seven games this season.
Uhlyar knows goal prevention will be a big key for the Jaguars if they want to take the next step and get to Consol Energy Center.
"We have high expectations this season and we know we have to perform every night," Uhlyar said. "... We just need to stay out of the penalty box, continue to help our defense and play smart in the defensive zone. That's where everything starts."