SHSHL Ice Hockey Notebook (1-26-23)


There is a common saying in the world of sports that you can learn more from losing.

But when you are a loaded team that is a defending state champion, those lessons are few and far between.

Take, for example, the Pennridge ice hockey team, which had to draw from a few rare losses to learn wins don’t come from just showing up at the rink.

The Rams dropped their first game, 6-3, to Pennsbury and then won two more before they were stunned by a Bensalem team – in an official SHSHL game -- just in its second year of existence after a hiatus of more than decade.

“That gave everyone a reality check,” said Pennridge coach Jeff Montagna. “In the end, that was the best thing that ever happened to us, losing that game. They finally understood that it wasn’t going to come easy to them, and they were going to have to put the work in. You can lose to anyone. That was a tough one but, in the end, it may have been the best thing that ever happened to us.

“And that’s not taking anything away from Bensalem. They played a great game that night. They don’t have a big bench. They are in a lot of games but run out of gas. I was happy for them, getting that win, because they deserved it.”

There has been one more loss since, a 7-3 setback against powerhouse Holy Ghost Prep in which Pennridge fell behind, 5-0, before battling back in a game that was more evenly played than the final score would indicate.

What has mainly changed since then is the dangerous pattern of constantly falling behind early.

“You can’t live like that,” said Montagna. “You’re going to lose games. You’re going to lose games you shouldn’t lose, and you’re not going to beat good teams.”

Since then, the Rams have hit their stride and have not only not lost but are passing the eye test.

“It took a little bit of time this year, but we have kind of found ourselves,” continued Montagna. “It hasn’t been easy. It has taken a good six weeks to find ourselves and get that swagger back.”

The Rams, who entered this week’s action with a 4-1 league record and a 9-2 overall mark, returned their top scorers – juniors Andrew Savona (14 goals, 18 assists) Kevin Pico (13 goals, 15 assists) and sophomore Shane Dackowski (15 goals, 9 assists) – but eight seniors were lost from the team that beat Thomas Jefferson from the Pittsburgh area for the state title.

“I don’t think we appreciated how hard it was going to be to come back this year,” said Montagna, who has been coaching ice hockey more than three decades. “It’s kind of unchartered territory for a lot of us, and I think we all just kind of forgot the work that it takes to get to where we were last year.

“It was a three-year process. We got a little bit closer each year. We knew, going into last year, that we were going to be really good. So much work went into that, and I think we just forgot what it takes to win hockey games.”

Montagna went on to single out Dane Fitchett (7 goals, 5 assists) and Andrew Lizak (6 goals, 4 assists) as seniors providing vital secondary scoring.

“Dane missed all of last season with an injury,” the Rams’ coach said. “He and Andrew have both been great this year.”

Additionally, junior captain Colin Dachowski (4 goals, 7 assists) anchors the defense.

“I think he’s the best defenseman in the league,” said Montagna. “He plays half the game. He’s tremendous, both offensively and defensively. He is basically the whole package.”

Still, the defense in front of rotating goalies Jacob Winton (3.96 goals against average, .809 save percentage) and Jacob Gilbert (3.88, .869) remained a work in progress.

CB East transfer Nick Young (3 assists) continues growing into the system while the move of Tyler Manto, who centered Savona and Pico last year, back to the blue line has helped.

The famed 1980 Olympic hockey team benefitted from a similar move when coach Herb Brooks moved forward Dave Christian, a future NHL all-star as a forward, back to the blue line.

“While he’s not really a defenseman, he has done a great job for me back there by just kind of stabilizing things,” said Montagna of Manto. “It can’t be easy, playing a position you’ve never played before, but he knew that was what we really needed and it has been a huge help for us.”

And, while it is easy to preach, the players needed to experience how it feels to be the team everyone else is circling on their calendars and using as a measuring stick.

“We’re the hunted,” said Montagna. “We were getting every team’s best game. We did return a lot of guys, but we also had a lot of new guys who were only swing guys last year.

“I think I wanted them to run before they could walk. I think I forgot that it was going to take a little bit of time for these guys who were new to varsity hockey to trust. They were some really good players, but they hadn’t been through it yet. It was a struggle. It was a struggle in practice. It was a struggle in games. It’s not easy to come back with targets on your back.”

The scary part? Pennridge isn’t going anywhere.

“For the most part, this whole team will be back again next year,” said Montagna. “I don’t know if I was as patient as I should have been back in the beginning of the year, but I had to remember that this is going to be a two-year run for us. That’s how we have to look at this.

“We’re in a very good place right now. We control our own destiny when it comes to the league.”

Collision Course

Pennridge is not the only team that can make that claim. For example, Council Rock South sits atop the standings and the two teams are on a collision course for a Feb. 1 showdown that could not only determine the division but a first-round bye in the playoffs.

While each team has games first (Pennridge against North Penn and Council Rock South against Central Bucks South), only upsets would change the course of events.

“We are having a good season,” said Council Rock South coach Joe Houk. “Where you are seeded at the end of the year for the playoffs and for the Flyers Cup is just so important.

“If you want to be the best, you have to have your ‘A’ game on. If you don’t play like a team, you are going to fail.”

A year ago, along the road to the ultimate prize, Pennridge beat Council Rock South for both the SHSHL crown and the Flyers Cup.

“Most likely, that game is going to be for the regular season title and the top seed in the playoffs,” said Montagna. “Council Rock South is really good. They are very deep, and their coach is the best coach in the league. It’s not going to be easy. They have a lot of revenge coming from last year. That’s a gigantic game in two weeks.”

Houk believes his team is more sound than last year’s edition, and he has a stellar goalie in senior Carson Lopez (1.96 goals against, .921 save percentage).

“We lost eight guys, but the team is a lot better from the goal line out, this year,” he said. “The defense is much stronger. I have some guys who can really handle the puck and, of course, I have Carson back there playing in goal. He has just done a tremendous job for us. As long as I have him, that’s a comfort.”

Council Rock South boasts a balanced attack. The offense is paced by junior Blaize Pepe (11 goals, 10 assists) and “stud” freshman Jake Weiner (12 goals, 5 assists).

Meanwhile, Chase Tovsky (1 goals, 9 assists) sets them up.

While Montagna boasts Colin Dachowski as the league’s top defenseman, Houck can make the same claim about junior Kevin Koles (6 goals, 10 assists).

“He is my best defenseman, and also one of my captains,” said Houk. “He logs a lot of ice time.

The defense is also bolstered by Daniel Filippov (2 goals, 4 assists), Jake Maurer (3 assists) and a pair of Ukrainian natives, Illia Mukhin (1 goal, 6 assists) and Illya Kudzinav (3 assists).

“I think depth is just so important,” said Houk. “What happens with a lot of teams, they have their first line and a half – maybe five guys that are always going to perform for you – and then they just drop off. I have three lines that can bring it, along with five solid defensemen and a goaltender that’s really solid.

“I think that really plays to our advantage.”