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Blackhawk rises to PIHL's elite ranks

Christopher Horner | Tribune-Review - Blackhawk's Daren Braudis carries the puck past Canon-McMillan's Cleat Winschell Thursday Jan. 17, 2013 at the Beaver County Ice Arena.
<div style='float:right;width:100%;' align='right'><em> Christopher Horner | Tribune-Review</em></div>Blackhawk's Daren Braudis carries the puck past Canon-McMillan's Cleat Winschell Thursday Jan. 17, 2013 at the Beaver County Ice Arena.
Christopher Horner | Tribune-Review - Blackhawk's Daren Braudis celebrates after scoring during the first period against Canon-McMillan Thursday Jan. 17, 2013 at the Beaver County Ice Arena.
<div style='float:right;width:100%;' align='right'><em> Christopher Horner | Tribune-Review</em></div>Blackhawk's Daren Braudis celebrates after scoring during the first period against Canon-McMillan Thursday Jan. 17, 2013 at the Beaver County Ice Arena.

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The high-end talent level, by and large, has remained the same. What's changed is the results for the Blackhawk hockey team.

The Cougars have been blessed with some abundantly skilled forwards, but last season all that helped produce was a 7-11-2 regular-season record and a first-round exit in the PIHL Open Class playoffs.

This season, the names headlining Blackhawk's offense haven't changed. Now, though, they're leading the charge for a team that has the classification's best record.

“I'm really happy with the way things are going — now we're doing what we're expected to do,” said senior winger Daren Braudis, who leads the PIHL in goals. “We're finally working as a team. That's all we needed. That's really all we really needed to do to pull out wins.”

The list of Blackhawk's leading scorers — Braudis, junior Kyle Schaefer, senior Josh McCuean and senior Nick Gray — reads identical to last season. The goalie, Grant Rombold, remained the same, too.

But the Cougars already have doubled their victory total from last season — with four weeks to play in the regular season. Blackhawk is 15-1-0 and riding a 15-game winning streak.

“We lost that first game, but we were missing some kids and a lot of the kids were used to the same old stuff (as previous seasons),” first-year coach Matt Stuber said. “As far as they weren't playing as a group and they weren't playing together — that makes it hard when you're playing the high school game.”

As part of a cooperative agreement, some of Blackhawk's players attend New Brighton High School.

The Cougars have learned to play a more team-oriented game as opposed to prioritizing individual statistics. The irony? Gaudy offensive numbers have resulted once, in Stuber's view, the players stopped trying for them.

Braudis has 41 goals in 14 games, and his 64 points rank second in the Open Class. Schaefer, a team alternate captain, is seventh in scoring in the classification with 42 points. McCuean (38 points in 14 games) and Gray (36 points in 15 games) aren't far behind.

The offense has produced 118 goals in 15 games (7.9 per contest), second most in the Open Class.

“There's a couple little things we've got to work on, but everybody has those,” Stuber said. “What's helping us is our offensive skill. We have a lot of firepower. I'm not real happy giving up three goals a game (actually 2.4), but at the same time, if you're scoring eight or nine, you'll still win the game.”

Braudis credits Stuber for the turnaround in goal production and, more importantly, in victories.

“We had some trouble with coaches in the past, but whenever he came in, he brought a system with him,” Braudis said. “He knows how to coach a team, and he's brought us together. He comes down to work, and that rubs off on us. We know if we stick to the system, we'll win games.”

An alternate captain, Gray centers what has been the Cougars' most productive line with Braudis and junior Andrew Peters. Shaefer, junior Daulton Linton and freshman Robert Swinderman also typically form a line, and junior center Jake Hopper and freshman wingers Austin Javens and Cory Steinle often skate together.

McCuean, Blackhawk's captain, selflessly moved from forward to defense this season to help fill a hole. Senior Brett Peacock, sophomore Devon Gabauer, junior Robert Houk and freshman Owen Schaefer also man the Cougars' blue line.

Chris Adamski is a freelance writer.

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