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Kittanning among several hockey teams with Class A title hopes

| Friday, Dec. 21, 2012, 12:44 a.m.
Kittanning's Christian Miller (right) looks to pass the puck out in front of the net during a Class A home game against South Fayette Thursday at the Belmont Complex.
Kittanning's Zane Wichowski pokes the puck away from South Fayette's Joe Testa (front) during a Class A game Thursday night at the Belmont Complex.

The members of Kittanning's hockey team have noticed that the list of potential PIHL Class A title contenders is more crowded than usual this season.

The Wildcats, semifinalists the past three winters, aren't alarmed. If anything, they're intrigued.

A two-week holiday break, which begins Friday and continues through Jan. 1, will allow Kittanning (5-2-1) to rest and prepare for what might become a grueling buildup to the postseason.

“One of the kids I was talking to before practice pointed out that you can't get a read at all in Class A by looking at scores every night,” coach Jamie King said. “I said, ‘That's why you play every night, and that's why you worry about yourself.' ”

The jewel of Kittanning's first two months is a 5-3 road win over Mars (7-2-1), a PIHL finalist a year ago and arguably Class A's No. 2 program this winter behind unbeaten Quaker Valley (10-0), the defending champ.

Behind Mars sits a glut of promising programs. Aside from Kittanning, the cast includes Freeport (7-1-1), Serra Catholic (6-3), Thomas Jefferson (6-4), and Westmont Hilltop (6-3-1).

“It's exciting,” King said. “Quaker Valley is obviously the top team, but it's so wide open right now.”

Rematches with Freeport, Serra Catholic and Thomas Jefferson might shed more light on where the Wildcats stand in Class A. Kittanning tied Freeport, 1-1, on Nov. 15, and, without starting goaltender Cameron Langham, it lost to Thomas Jefferson and Serra Catholic by one goal each: 7-6 and 5-4, respectively.

What led to Kittanning's setbacks were lapses in intensity, King explained. Thomas Jefferson scored five of its seven goals during a sloppy Kittanning first period. Serra Catholic scored four of its five during a seven-minute span in the second period.

“I think we definitely learned that you have to come out ready to play every game,” said forward Christian Miller, who has a team-high 35 points (16 goals, 19 assists). “I think (the parity) is nerve-racking because we want to be the best, and we have to show up every night.”

King expects to see few if any lapses going forward.

“Sometimes, when you're way ahead in games, the mistakes, they make it 10-1 and not 10-0,” he said. “But when it's a close game and they do hurt you, I think it does carry more weight. When you show it on film, it carries more weight.”

With games against Thomas Jefferson (Jan. 2) and Westmont Hilltop (Jan. 3) scheduled just after the holidays, Kittanning can significantly shuffle the standings before its players break their New Year's resolutions.

The key, Kittanning players and King agree, is further dedication to responsible defense. With 25 goals allowed in eight games, the Wildcats surrender 3.1 per contest. They aim to reduce that figure as their young defense matures.

“Almost all of our defensemen are freshmen, and in that (preseason) tournament, it was so-so,” Langham said. “It's the back-checking, it's the rebounds, it's covering the guy backdoor — everything is better now.”

The forwards' adherence to a more dump-and-chase approach to offense will help, too.

“I think our forecheck needs some work out there,” Miller said. “But it'll come with more practice. We definitely need to work on dumping it in more instead of trying to go through too many guys.”

Bill West is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at wwest@tribweb.com or 724-543-1303.

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