Burrell hockey filling the nets, hoping to improve defensively
In the early part of Burrell hockey's season, one thing is becoming clear: The Bucs can put the puck in the net.
At times this season, they also had trouble keeping opponents off the scoreboard.
Burrell leads PIHL Division II with 53 goals entering Thursday, 19 more than any other team, and is averaging nearly eight goals through its first seven games. Sophomore forward Tyler Stewart leads the PIHL with 24 goals, and nine skaters have scored for the Bucs. Burrell has the top three point-getters in the league, with Stewart (36), Dylan Zelonka (21) and defenseman Bryce Schueler (15).
On the flip side, the Bucs (5-2) have allowed 30 goals, which is the second-most in Division II behind Morgantown's 32. Burrell's 4.28 goals-against average ranks in the bottom half of the league.
Goal bonanzas can be fun and entertaining, but if the Bucs want to reach their ultimate goal of competing for a Division II title, coach Max Rickard said they have to make a concerted effort to improve as a unit defensively.
“I know goals win games, but it starts with defense,” Rickard said. “If the defense plays well, then the goals will continue. We have two goalies in Colin Bistarkey and Drew Burkett that we trust, and a sound defensive game is really going to help us succeed this season. Once we get much better at getting pucks out, lifting sticks in front of the net and having a sound breakout, the offense will come after it. I think we've shown we have enough firepower there.”
Burrell yielded season-high goals against totals in its two losses, 7-4 to Moon and 8-7 to Ringgold.
The Ringgold game in particular served as an eye-opener for the Bucs, because they allowed 29 shots in the first period. Burkett did his best in net to keep them in it with 28 saves, but the period set the tone for the night and Ringgold continued to force the issue, eventually winning a back-and-forth affair.
“We just came out flat-footed, and (Ringgold) took us by surprise that game,” Zelonka said. “We had some of our players get back the night before after midnight from (playing travel hockey with the Pittsburgh Vipers) in Chicago, so some of us we're pretty tired, but that's no excuse. We weren't up for the challenge I guess, because we didn't come out skating.”
The Bucs have rematches with both teams. They host Ringgold Dec. 11 and Moon one week later.
Zelonka, a junior, goes to Apollo-Ridge and is one of several players who co-ops with the Bucs. He is a cousin of former Apollo-Ridge quarterbacks Jesse and Josh Zelonka.
About half of the team is composed of players who go to Burrell, including Stewart, Burkett and Schueler. Other schools represented include Valley, Woodland Hills, Riverview, North Hills and St. Joseph.
Zelonka has nine goals, good for second on the team behind Stewart. Logan Schoepf has scored eight times. Zelonka and Stewart have bought into the message from Rickard about needing to improve on defense. They're working to become a tougher team to play against defensively, and that starts by being responsible in their own end and knowing their assignments as forwards.
“As a forward unit, we need to backcheck more and play our positions in the defensive zone,” Zelonka said. “We need to have our heads on a swivel and pick up the guy in front of the net. As a center, I need to get down low in the zone and support the defensemen and the goalie.”
Said Stewart: “You can't just win a game with offense. Just because we are winning a few games in a row, we can't take it for granted. It can be ripped from you at any second. We can't get up on a team and think we are going to win the game just because we're up by two or three goals. It's hockey. Anything can change quickly. We need to be humble when we're leading, keep playing the same way and don't let off the gas.”
Burrell is in its second year back from a long hiatus at the varsity level. Last year's success, which was highlighted by being the lone team to blemish Meadville's perfect season with a 3-3 tie, provided a good foundation for this year, but it also showed the teams in Division II that they can play with the top programs.
The Bucs aren't being overlooked this year, and that has them motivated to continue making improvements to stay in the upper echelon of the league.
“(Last year) kind of put a target on our backs,” Stewart said. “We're not the underdog anymore. We've proven that we can play in this league, and we can excel. We just have to keep up to our name and not let other teams come in and walk right through us. We need to show that we have a will to stay here and that we're trying to do something big this year like win a championship or something.”
Jerin Steele is a freelance writer.