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Kiski Area hockey team realizes playoff berth still a possibility

| Monday, Jan. 21, 2013, 12:01 a.m.
Kiski Area goalie Ben Crawford makes a stop of the puck during team practice at the Center Ice Arena in Delmont, Sunday January 20, 2013
Bill Shirley  |  For The Valley News Dispatch
Valley News Dispatch
Kiski Area goalie Ben Crawford makes a stop of the puck during team practice at the Center Ice Arena in Delmont, Sunday January 20, 2013 Bill Shirley | For The Valley News Dispatch

Kiski Area captain Shawn Welsh has experienced winning, and he has experienced losing.

The senior forward played on the Cavaliers team that captured the 2011 PIHL Open Class Chiefs Cup.

On the heels of that accomplishment and an appearance in the 2010 Chiefs Cup final, Kiski Area made the jump to Class AA in 2011-12. It finished with a 3-17-1 record and missed the playoffs.

“Last season, coming off of that Chiefs Cup championship, we were trying to at least make playoffs,” Welsh said. “Then we just started losing games.

“It just became unreal.”

This season appeared to be following a similar trajectory until something changed — the Cavaliers started winning. After opening the season with a 1-7 mark, they rattled off wins in three of their next five games and put themselves right in the thick of the playoff race.

Kiski Area coach Dave Warren sees a team that is getting healthy, playing cohesive hockey and adapting to the rigors of a higher division.

“I think now we have one more win than we did all last season. Playoffs aren't totally out of the question,” he said. “We're going from a premise that every game is a big game if we're going to salvage something from the season.”

Warren rued the team's early season injuries that left the team dangerously undermanned. In a 7-4 loss to Pine-Richland on Nov. 12, he said the Cavaliers dressed only nine players.

After heading to the third period tied, 3-3, the numbers game caught up to them.

“It's a shame (we had that kind of start) because it's a great group of kids,” Warren said. “But we've had injuries like you wouldn't imagine.”

Senior Josh Clifford, a versatile, minute-eating defenseman, also missed a pair of games after a suspension incurred at the end of last season. Since his return, he and senior goaltender Ben Crawford have played vital roles.

“Ben deserves a lot of recognition for what he's doing,” Welsh said. “Even when we've given up a lot of shots on goal, he's kept us in the game.”

The Cavaliers employ a 1-2-2 forecheck that relies on the speed of forwards, such as leading goal-scorer Alex Welsh, a junior, and senior Alex Polka, to force turnovers.

Junior Kevin Kunkle, the team's leading scorer, and Shawn Welsh also play vital roles on what Warren described as a team-first offense.

“Last year, everyone wanted goals, just wanted to get us out of the slump, and it didn't happen,” Warren said. “This year, everyone's relying on each other and it makes things happen.”

Among Kiski Area's biggest accomplishments this season was a 4-2 win over Plum, perhaps the most important for the program since its arrival in Class AA.

“It was a huge motivational boost,” Crawford said. “It made us feel like we could hang with anyone.”

Last Thursday, however, Kiski Area was blown out, 9-2, at West Allegheny — a team it is chasing for the division's final playoff spot. The Cavaliers know that, if this year is to end differently than last, they can't take anything for granted.

“We went in with hot heads because we had just won two in a row and they only had three wins,” Shawn Welsh said. “It was like a wake-up call, I guess you could say.”

Stephen Catanese is a freelance writer.

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