Miller, Grafton carrying offensive load for Armstrong
On a new team with a new coach in a new classification, things are the same as ever for Armstrong hockey linemates Christian Miller and Hunter Grafton.
Miller and Grafton, the No. 1 and No. 2 scorers in Class A last season with Kittanning, are on pace to be near the top of the Class AA leaderboard this season as the top scorers for the first-year Armstrong program.
Miller, a junior, entered Tuesday with a league-best 25 goals, and his 35 points is fourth in Class AA. Grafton, a senior, is third in the league with 37 points on 15 goals and 22 assists.
Those totals through 11 games put the pair on a similar pace to last season, when Miller was Class A's top scorer with 82 points and a league-high 45 goals, and Grafton was second with 81 points and a league-high 43 assists to end the regular season.
Their scoring success has helped the Riverhawks (8-3-0) to the third-best record in Class AA through Monday's games, but the big numbers have come with an added challenge for the duo.
“Every single game is a challenge,” Grafton said. “We're not going to go out and beat teams 11-1 or 12-1. We can never take a game lightly.”
“It's definitely better competition every night. It doesn't matter if it's a team that only has two or three wins,” Miller said. “We're a team that scores a lot of goals, but I don't think we've had more than eight in a game yet.”
Moving up a classification has been just one part of the task for Grafton and Miller, who have been linemates since playing freshman hockey in junior high. The two also were entrusted with the leadership role in the merger of Kittanning and Ford City's programs, with Grafton serving as captain and Miller as one of the assistant captains.
To try and help spread out the on-ice leadership and scoring, Armstrong coach Doug Anthony experimented with putting the two on separate lines. Though the move wasn't a total failure, Anthony said he quickly realized that his top guns bring out the best in each other.
“It's kind of amazing, actually. They just know where each other is on the ice at all times,” Anthony said. “They get down in the corners, and they can find each other in close quarters without even looking sometimes.”
That chemistry between the two is fueled by their complementary playing styles.
“I'm more of a pass-first guy, so he's perfect for me because he has an unbelievable scoring touch and he's great at getting open,” Grafton said.
“I definitely enjoy shooting the puck a lot — maybe too much,” Miller said with a laugh. “But he's always looking for me, and I don't even have to call for the puck.”
The third player on their line, senior Cody Toy, adds another dimension to the group by playing as what Miller called “a real power forward.” Toy has two goals and 14 assists.
“He just knows how to get the puck to Christian and me, and he has a great net presence,” Grafton said. “You need three guys on a line, and we wouldn't be where we are without him.”
Anthony also commended the former Kittanning players for their defensive work this season in the system he brought from his days coaching at Ford City, but offense is what the team needs most from them.
Much of the Riverhawks' success for the rest of the year will be tied to their ability to continue putting the puck in the net, and Anthony said when it's late in a close game, his leaders know they're the ones who will be on the ice.
“We expect a lot out of ourselves, and the team in general, this year,” Miller said. “The games we lost earlier in the year, we can only blame ourselves. We both take a lot of pride in being captains, and it falls on us to be ready to play and to lead the team.”