With the renovated Belmont Complex ice rink to call home, some of the area's top teams will be trying to bring a home playoff game to the refurbished arena.
Both Armstrong and Freeport enter the PIHL hockey season with high expectations, and both should contend for one of the top four spots in their class when regular-season play begins Monday.
The newest addition to the league is the Armstrong team, the result of the impending merger of the high schools in Kittanning and Ford City. The schools' combined enrollment places the Riverhawks in Class AA, but with players from Kittanning, a perennially strong Class A team, and Ford City, last year's Open Class champ, the talent is there for the team to compete at a higher level.
“Our expectations are high going into the year,” Armstrong coach Doug Anthony said. “The difference in Class AA is that play is a little tighter, and you can't hang on to the puck as long. In Class A or Open, you're going to beat some teams by 10 goals. That won't happen in Class AA, where there's a lot more parity.”
Armstrong senior captain Hunter Grafton and junior Christian Miller, both Kittanning players, bring a lot of offensive punch for the Riverhawks. Miller and Grafton finished 1-2 in the Class A scoring leaders last season with 163 points between them in the regular season.
Ford City provides more scoring in sophomore forward Luke Gross, who scored 32 goals last season, Kittanning sophomore Taylor Smouse will handle goaltending duties as a first-time varsity starter.
“We have a lot of talent on this team, and there may not always be enough pucks to go around,” Anthony said. “Our chemistry hasn't been there with all our line combinations, but we've played 10 to 12 preseason games to give them a chance to play together and get Taylor some time in goal.”
In the 12-team Class AA, Armstrong is in the northernmost Section 3 with Hampton and Erie Cathedral Prep. The team opens its 22-game schedule at 7:15 p.m. Monday at North Hills, and when all is done, the Riverhawks hope to be among the top teams.
“We think we'll be able to compete with the best teams,” Anthony said. “We've been playing a lot of Class AAA teams to get ready, and we've had a good preseason.”
With the departure of Kittanning and other programs, Class A has been reduced to 10 teams, and Freeport plans to again be one of them after finishing the 2012 regular season with a 16-5-1 record, third best in the class.
This year's Yellowjackets have a shorter bench than last year but there is a lot of quality, led by two of last year's leading scorers, senior Cole Hepler (22 goals, 16 assists) and sophomore Mickey Frazetta (17 and 13).
“We have a lot of returners, and even thought our bench is a little shorter, everyone there is capable of playing good hockey,” Freeport coach Dave Hepler said. “Our younger players have another year of experience under their belt, and they're going to be better.”
Freeport again will lean on a trio of netminders — Matt Huston, Dom Digiacobbe and Katie Hill — and their coach said as with the skaters, everyone is capable and would get their share of time.
“We're hoping that's the way it works out,” Hepler said of the rotation. “We don't know how good everyone is going to be in Class A, so we'll have to see how things work out.”
With fewer teams, Freeport's Section 4 has only one other team, Deer Lakes. The Yellowjackets will play three games against the Lancers and the three teams of Section 3, which includes Westmont Hilltop, where Freeport opens its season at 7:30 p.m. Wednesday.
“We just want to take it game-by-game, win our section, and from there, every game is the Stanley Cup,” Hepler said. “Last year, we beat Kittanning and tied them in the season, but they beat us in the playoffs. You just have to make sure you're in the playoffs, and then it's one game at a time.”
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