By GORDON GLANTZ
If you build it, they will come.
In the case of high school hockey teams in Lower Bucks County, such as Pennsbury, it is essential to build a program with the type of culture that keep players wanting to come there out of middle school and not the several formidable private school programs in the area.
As such, this has been coach Ryan Daley’s crowning achievement since taking over.
He starred at Pennsbury from 2009-2012 and went on to play at Penn State-Berks. When he returned in 2017 as the youngest coach in the league, a distinction he believes he probably still holds, the program had fallen on some rough times.
Beyond wins and losses, he was looking to rebuild the culture.
“My main goal for the program when I took over it, was to retain the players we were developing down in middle school,” he said. “Obviously, it’s hard to retain players when you are not winning, so we had a lot of work to do early.”
And, while you can’t bat 1.000, the Pennsbury program is certainly where he had hoped it would be, with the 2020-21 team winning the league title.
“I’m proud to say we’ve had success, particularly the last three seasons, and have gotten the program to a level that shows those talented young players that Pennsbury is good hockey and worth being a part of,” he added.
That’s the big picture. Within it comes the current season, which sees Pennsbury very much in the mix to contend in the SHSHL playoffs and then in the Flyers Cup.
Daley’s squad entered play this week tied atop the National Conference with CB South at 4-1. Overall, Pennsbury started 1-2 and then rattled off seven straight wins before a sobering 11-4 loss to Pennridge, the defending state champion.
“It wasn’t our best night all around and the score reflected that,” said Daley. “We look at it as a learning moment, though. It doesn’t matter how hot you are when anyone in this league can put up a great game. We just need to remember that and adjust going forward.”
Still, there is no reason to think his team can’t just chalk it up to bad game and move on.
“I’m confident, with our guys, that we’ll bounce back and have a strong showing in the rest of the regular season and the postseason,” he added.
That confidence is certainly warranted with some of the talent he has retained at Pennsbury.
That conversation begins with sniper Brendan Macainish, who has pumped in 19 goals and added 11 assists so far. The scary part is that he is still a junior, and Daley sees him as one of the best players ever at the school.
Daley also point to defenseman Justin Martin, who recently had four goals in one game and has 9, along with 7 assists, for the season.
“I don’t think I can remember a defenseman scoring four goals in one game before,” said Daley, who also praised the play of goalie Aaron McDonald.
Even with the Pennridge game, McDonald’s numbers (3.27 goals against, .872 save percentage) are all pretty solid.
And there are those still in building mode.
While Pennsbury is poised for a postseason run, North Penn (0-4 National, 3-7-1 overall) is looking to continue to get more competitive in the second half of the season and be more in the mix next year.
“It’s been a little bit of a difficult year,” said coach Kevin Vaitis. “We were definitely hoping for more, although it’s still a relatively young team. We only have five seniors. We had a difficult season last year also, and that was with more experience.”
Led by juniors John Stinson (10 goals, 4 assists), Joey Silvotti (1 goal, 7 assists) and surprising freshman Nolan Shingle (5 goals, 5 assists), North Penn ended a four-game losing skid with a 3-3 tie against CB East.
A 7-6 win over Souderton on Dec. 1 was the last win, and it was followed by a 10-2 loss against CB South on Dec. 7. However, while losing the next three, the losing margins were tighter.
“The last two games that we played, against Pennsbury and CB East, are two of the best games that we have played all year,” said Vaitis, who wanted to single out four-year defenseman Tyler Porubski (2 goals, 2 assists) for his consistent play throughout the season. “Hopefully, things are starting to click a little bit and maybe we can put a little bit of a run together here at the end of the year.
“We are just looking for improvement from the beginning of the year to where we are now. We had a stretch there where we were giving up shorthanded goals and opportunities. We were making mistakes in our own end that we shouldn’t have been making. Some of that is just mental, and some it is from lack of experience of playing at the varsity level.”
Caught in a Trap
Operating on the belief that there is a solution to any problem, Quakertown coach Keith Krem has turned to a strategy considered a scourge by hockey purists.
Welcome the Neutral Zone Trap made famous by the New Jersey Devils in the 1990s.
Krem has deployed the strategy out of necessity, as he often only has 8-10 skaters at his disposal on a given night.
“We have been playing a lot of old-school neutral zone trap, to be honest with you,” said Krem. “We have come to grips with the fact that we are often going to have a short bench. We need to stay organized and stay on our game plan. When we stay on our game plan, we are really successful. When we get off our game plan and maybe get too flashy and try to do too much, it ends up costing us.”
The trap offers an opportunity to frustrate opponents looking to open the game up by slowing the pace and keeping scores low.
There are various variations of it, but Quakertown is basically willing to trade being outshot for not giving up quality chances.
Meanwhile, the scoring opportunities are created on the counterattack, with odd-man rushes.
The bottom line is a league record of 4-3-1 and an overall mark of 5-3-1. Quakertown has also tied Abington (2-2 on Dec. 13), a potentate which has won it all of its other 11 games by an average margin of 6.3 goals.
“There is nothing but positivity from my standpoint, in terms of the way we have made it work with what we have,” said Krem. “We don’t have a huge roster. With injuries and what not, there are games where we have had to play with 8, 9, 10 guys. We have been able to push through and play some pretty good structured hockey, so it’s all good.”
While the team has some skaters – Branden McNally (13 goals, 9 assists), William Shaw (7 goals, 9 assists), Lucas Cunnane (4 goals, 9 assists) and Cole Slemmer (10 goals, 3 assists) --- putting up nice numbers, it is more about the system in front of Krem’s son, Matthew Krem (2.75 goals against, .911 save percentage), in goal.
“They have really bought into the philosophy that we want to have here, in terms of showing up prepared to play within the unit and to play with structure, and they are getting the benefit of seeing that in the outcomes,” said Krem. “I’m really proud of them. It isn’t an easy thing to do.
“At the end of the day, it slows the game down, which is to our benefit. It keeps us from having to skate up and down the ice against team with 16-17 guys.
“The American Division is a pretty high-scoring division. Our scores are pretty low, for the most part.”
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