Latrobe hockey turning it around after shaky start
Chris Johnson and Adam Ferguson delivered a message to the Latrobe hockey team following a 6-0 loss to Chartiers Valley on Jan. 2, and it wasn't exactly laced with positivity.
“Both of us are pretty vocal, and we told the underclassmen that this isn't Latrobe hockey,” Johnson said. “This hasn't happened in … I don't know how many years. It was embarrassing to us. We needed to step up our game.”
Despite a slow start, Latrobe has learned quite a bit about its young team over the past couple of weeks and has played a different brand of hockey since Jan. 9 — the first game after Chartiers Valley, a 4-2 win over West Allegheny.
“We're communicating more,” Ferguson said. “Guys are getting to know each other. Everyone's buying into the system and knows what they have to do to win a state championship.”
Latrobe had become one of the PIHL's marquee teams thanks to the contributions of forward Josh Singley, defenseman Rob Vasinko and goaltender Shane Brudnok.
With those three gone, however, there was a noticeable leadership void.
Five players who combined for 70 goals last season were back, but none of them had much experience delivering a postgame speech or keeping things positive.
“You look at those three, and they were true leaders,” Latrobe coach John Winebrenner said. “They knew which buttons to push. Sometimes that made it easy because they were very mature and knew what it took to get back to the championship.”
What bothered Johnson and Ferguson the most was not the losses. With Singley, Vasinko and Brudnok gone, everybody knew those would come.
The irritating part was how lopsided they were: by nine goals to Bishop Canevin; by four to Armstrong, the second consecutive game Latrobe allowed 10 or more goals; by seven to Erie Cathedral Prep; and finally, the Chartiers Valley debacle.
This from the defending Penguins and Pennsylvania Cup champs, a program that had won four Penguins Cup titles in six years.
“When we were losing games and getting beat bad, it was a wakeup call,” Johnson said. “It told us that we're not the best team anymore, and we need to step up.”
Starting with a 5-5 tie against first-place Plum on Jan. 13, things began to turn around for Latrobe. A few tweaks were made to the lines. Same for Latrobe's system. The Wildcats started blocking shots and limiting opposing teams' time with the puck.
“The direction we had to make changes to was defense,” Winebrenner said. “That's why I'm pleased with the way we're playing. Before Christmas and after, there's a big difference.”
Johnson leads the Wildcats with 21 goals and 44 points. Ferguson ranks slightly behind at 15 and 34. Brendan Johns has 27 points, including 17 goals, and Dan Johnson 22 points.
Tim Ruppen has taken over for Brudnok in goal and, after a shaky start, has found some consistency lately, going 8-8-3 with an .860 save percentage.
Senior defensemen Joe Wright and Drew Tonks have anchored Latrobe's defense, while junior Cam Carr has filled in at both forward and defense.
At 9-8-3 (21 points), Latrobe has no hope of catching Plum (27 points) for the Section 4-AA title, though Winebrenner has been around long enough to know that's not what truly matters.
“A section title's nice, but it's not the Penguins Cup,” Winebrenner said. “You have to get to the playoffs. Once you're there, it's a new season.”