The frigid end of January 2019 approaches in the windswept prairie village of Wilcox, and Notre Dame’s Junior A team has not been beaten in regulation in almost two months.
Nine games over that span have yielded six wins, but more than that, the club’s recent string of success has provided head coach Phil Roy with a real sense of how the team he inherited only last August would emerge from the season’s many first-half adversities.
“We played a lot of hockey in that first half, more than anyone else in the league,” Roy says.
“Our guys had to face a ton of adversity with injuries, new coaching coming in with a new style, system and culture; and so, there were a lot of new things off the get-go for these guys. I think getting through all of that has made us better and stronger for the second half. We have a lot of potential, and I think our best hockey is still ahead of us.”
Only a single Hound, all-star rookie defender Kyle Robinson, has escaped injury or suspension and played in all 43 contests for the club at time of writing, and as a result, there has not been a single game all season in which Roy has been able to ice the exact roster he would hope for, if all were healthy and available.
But as is the college’s motto, Notre Dame continues to emerge from their struggles, and at the same time, despite being seemingly stuck in eighth place in the 12-team league even with the latest hot streak, they refuse to make any excuses.
“Sure, we struggled a bit before Christmas,” says Charles Martin, the club’s lone 20-year-old defenceman, “but to bounce back like we have is huge for our confidence. We feel like we’re really ready to play some big games, get up in the standings, and try to get out of the survivor series spots, and into the legitimate playoff spots.”
A big key to the recent run has been the goaltending tandem of Riley Kohonick and Matt Lukacs, the latter of which the Hounds picked up from the Estevan Bruins at the trade deadline.
Since taking over the starting job from the now-departed Andrew Henderson in early December, the 2000-born Kohonick has a sterling .931 save percentage and a 2.09 goals-against-average over an eight-game span. The White City, SK native’s play earned him a spot at the 2019 SJHL/MJHL Showcase in Regina, and two-straight league goaltender of the week honours in mid-January.
With Kohonick in net, and a team impressively and enthusiastically grasping the concepts Roy and his coaching staff have set in place, the Hounds have given up only 2.2 goals-against-per-game over that nine-game unbeaten run.
“I think the biggest part of it is that we’re playing better as a team,” says the always-humble Kohonick.
“We are getting our systems down, and gluing together better. Individually, I would say I have adapted to the pace of the game, tracking faster shots, and getting use to the faster game compared to midget. But everyone here has bought in, and that’s the biggest factor.”
Supporting Kohonick is the fact that ND’s defence-corps ranks among the best in the SJHL as a group that can carry and move the puck, skate it out of trouble, and contribute offensively. Martin sits third in the league in goals among defencemen, and with the likes of the University of Maine committed Tim Gould, the Newfoundland-born and supremely agile Robinson, the smooth-skating Hardy Wagner, and the defensively reliable Austin Wieler, Joe Santalucia, and Cody Lehner, there is little need for Roy to overload any single Hound defender with minutes over the course of an individual contest.
“We really feel, from one to seven, we have the most skilled defence-corps in the league,” says Martin.
“We have a group that is working so hard, trying to get better every day. We have worked so hard since the beginning of the year, and to have Phil as an ex-Dman to help teach us, it has been huge. I know we’re young as a group, but we’re very good, and it makes everyone’s job easier – nobody needs to play 30 minutes, because we can all play.”
The forward group continues to emerge and mature as well, with third-year power forward Marshall Wilton leading the way with 46 points through 39 games; the 20-year-old scored his 100th career point on Jan. 22 at home against the Weyburn Red Wings. His line, with skilled finisher Jakob Breault in the middle, and the big-bodied all-star Jarrett Penner on the right, has been extremely tough for anyone to handle since they were united in late November.
Captain Jared Hamm continues to work as hard as anyone in the middle of his line, and remains as reliable in all three zones as anybody in the SJHL, while the veteran Conor MacLean has added valuable secondary scoring punch since his re-acquisition from the Maritime Hockey League’s Grand Falls Rapids in November.
So, with all systems going, and with a much lighter schedule in the second half, Roy is very hopeful for a fantastic end to the regular season, one that ends on March 2.
“Guys are really buying in, they know their expectations, and it has been really positive since Christmas,” he says.
“The one variable we have is the confidence aspect, as we have five players in the Top 15 in rookie scoring, and while we need guys to learn from mistakes, we also need them to learn from success. We’re getting healthy still, but our guys have struggled and emerged a lot already this year.”