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Hockey insider: Pine-Richland making smooth transition to Class AAA

| Sunday, Jan. 19, 2014, 10:36 p.m.
Louis Raggiunti | Pine Creek Journal
Pine-Richland forward Nick Jenkins scored the first of nine Rams goals in a 9-5 win over Butler earlier this season.

Reaching the 2013 PIHL Penguins Cup Class AA championship game gave Ryan Cole confidence that Pine-Richland would do fine when it bumped up a class this winter.

“We knew that the competition would be a little tougher in Class AAA,” Cole said. “The biggest adjustment for us is that every team in Class AAA is a good team. We knew we could keep up with the best in Class AA, so we thought we could keep up with the best in Class AAA as well.”

More than halfway through the regular season, Pine-Richland has handled itself well despite bumping up a class and graduating Dillon Kessy and Zach Richey, two proven scorers who combined for 109 points.

“Most of us were very excited,” captain Nick Jenkins said. “We couldn't wait to play in Class AAA. We thought it would be extremely fun and competitive.”

Pine-Richland (6-6) is tied with Shaler atop Section 4-AAA with 12 points. The teams meet at 7:10 p.m. Monday at Ice Connection.

Nicholas Matelan (16 goals, 12 assists) and Cole (eight goals, 13 assists) have picked up the offensive slack. The Rams have produced 57 goals, tied with Canon-McMillan for third most in the classification behind Shaler (67) and Penn-Trafford (63).

“We've worked hard in practice to make sure that we're shooting with authority,” Pine-Richland coach Mike Bagnato said. “I know we have a couple guys who are near the top of the scoring list, but we're getting goals from a lot of different people.”

All of this while learning as many as three different forechecks.

“They've been doing a good job of adjusting to those systems,” Bagnato said.

Eight of Matelan's 28 points have come on the power play, where he does some of his best work. He also has a pair of game-winning goals.

Bagnato praised Cole's work along the boards and in the corner, often facilitating goals with his hard work. Bagnato said Cole's younger brother, Matt, has emerged as a scoring threat on the Rams' second line. Matt Cole ranks second on the team with 10 goals.

The original plan was for Jenkins to switch from defense to offense, but he has proven too valuable on the Rams' blue line. Kyle Cunningham has logged 30-35 minutes a game while offering solid defense and picking up just eight penalty minutes.

“That's hard for a lot of these kids, especially a defenseman,” Bagnato said of Cunningham, who was named one of four PIHL Players of the Month for December. “He's kept himself in the game. He's scoring goals, but he has also done a great job of playing defense.”

Junior Isaac Stephen and Ben Stauffer have split time in goal, with each picking up three wins.

Ten seniors have helped ease the transition up to Class AAA, and there may be a chance for more wins over the final eight games of the season; of Pine-Richland's six losses, four have been by one goal.

“A lot of times we're losing the little battles,” Ryan Cole said. “We just need to start winning these battles to start winning some games.”

Just as Pine-Richland closed the 2012-13 regular season with four straight victories then won two more playoff games, Bagnato thinks this group is capable of a similar streak. Only it'll be in Class AAA.

“We need to put together a streak and find a way to win some of those close games,” Bagnato said. “I think we're very close to that.”

Jason Mackey is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. Reach him at jmackey@tribweb.com or via Twitter @Mackey_Trib.

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