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Kittanning hockey team wants to prevent goals as well as score them

| Wednesday, Oct. 31, 2012, 12:01 a.m.
Kittanning senior Eli Johns (left) pressures the crease in front of Ford City goalie Adam Cogley during a preseason game at the Belmont Complex in September.
Kittanning's Hunter Grafton handles the puck in heavy traffic during a game against Freeport last season. Grafton, now a junior, is one of the Wildcats' top returning scorers.

Kittanning junior forward Hunter Grafton admitted he devoted limited attention to his back-checking during previous seasons with the Wildcats. His offensive responsibilities preoccupied his mind, a scenario that led to 37 goals and 70 assists through his sophomore year.

Particularly after Kittanning's underwhelming performance in preseason tournaments this fall, Grafton sees the need for more two-way play. His desire to assist the defense matches his aspirations to score.

Kittanning, the highest-scoring team in PIHL Class A over the past three seasons combined and a three-time semifinalist, plans to adjust the way it approaches defense. The Wildcats haven't struggled to stop opponents from scoring; they've ranked fourth twice and sixth once in goals-allowed each season since they dropped to Class A in 2009. But with the season set to begin Thursday at South Park, they're mulling the benefits of a more balanced approach.

“You might see more 3-2 games than us just outscoring everybody,” Grafton said. “It'll definitely be a different kind of Kittanning hockey than you're used to.”

Grafton is one of several proven scorers for the Wildcats. He joins sophomore Christian Miller (39 goals, 30 assists), junior Cody Toy (7, 14) senior Hunter Anthony (12, 8), freshman Jacob Snyder (4, 13) and senior Eli Johns (4, 7).

Whether anyone in the group can replace Heinz Koster, last season's Class A scoring champion (48, 43) is uncertain. But the Wildcats also wonder whether adding someone to Kittanning's recent line of star scorers is a top priority.

“We're still going to have a lot of guys scoring goals,” Kittanning coach Jamie King said. “It's more a matter of where we create them from.”

Aggressive fore- and back-checking by the centers and wingers will help an inexperienced defense. Seniors Mike Kelly and Caroline Mundy are proven blue-liners, but behind them are freshmen Donovan and Zane Wichowski, and sophomores Nate Grafton and Chandler Cousins.

The young defensemen improved considerably during the preseason, King and Grafton agreed. Continuing the development is pivotal, and the caretaker of progress is third-year starting goaltender Cameron Langham.

Langham stopped 90.3 percent of the shots he faced as a junior and allowed 21 goals in 11 games. A year earlier, he had a 89.8 save percentage and allowed 47 goals in 21 games.

King wants Langham to work on his communication with his defenders. He has asked the senior to assure defensemen they have time when they retrieve pucks, or to let them know from which direction forecheckers approach.

“We have to outwork the other teams and just take the body on them,” Anthony, an alternate captain, said. “We'll still be an offensively threatening team, but we'll be grittier than in past years.”

Bill West is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at wwest@tribweb.com or 724-543-1303.

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