All-Stars Patrick, Leslie leading Penn-Trafford hockey’s surge
By: Sean Meyers
Monday, January 29, 2018 | 11:00 PM
Entering the holiday break, the Penn-Trafford hockey team was on the outside of the playoff picture in the PIHL's Class AA. The Warriors accumulated just 10 points in their first 10 games. Since the turn of the calendar to 2018, though, Penn-Trafford has been among the hottest teams in the classification and is in the thick of the hunt for the postseason.
Leading the way during the recent surge have been the team's All-Star representatives: forwards Gavin Patrick and Benjamin Leslie. In 15 games, Patrick has 14 goals and nine assists for a team-leading 23 points, and Leslie has six goals, 13 assists and 19 points.
Penn-Trafford coach Rob Baker highlighted what made Patrick an easy selection for the game, which was played Sunday at RMU Island Sports Center in Neville Township.
“Gavin's really turned it on this year. He's been a breath of fresh air,” Baker said. “I think he's physically matured a little bit more. He does everything well, but his shot is probably his most outstanding quality.”
Like most of his teammates, Patrick had very little varsity experience prior to this season. Although he played in only a handful of games last season as a call-up, Patrick learned from last year's top scorer, Nate Mickey. That experience translated into confidence heading into the 2017-18 season for Patrick, who scored on his first shift in the season opener against Shaler Area and hasn't slowed since.
Patrick had a goal for Team Blue in a 7-4 loss to Team White on Sunday.
Patrick expressed a belief that the Warriors had the ability to win the Class AA Penguins Cup even before the season began. After a win against the Titans in the opening game, however, the Warriors sputtered, losing decisively to Franklin Regional, Hempfield and Latrobe. Those struggles were expected growing pains for a team that had to replace 18 players from last season.
“We really only had like two players from last year who had that full year of varsity experience, so we kind of did start from scratch,” he said.
Since the new year, the Warriors avenged losses to Franklin Regional and Hempfield and also defeated Shaler and Pine-Richland before losing to Armstrong last Thursday. The turnaround stemmed from a tournament in Harmarville, Baker said.
“We came out of the tournament last year pretty hot. This year, it's been a great turnaround for the boys,” Baker said of his team. “I think that they're finally buying in to our system a little bit better and competing a little harder every night.”
Patrick added: “It really did start with that tournament. We played some AAA teams and some higher-level AA teams. It really boosted our confidence after we got a few wins.”
Additionally, Baker implemented some line changes and made a few shifts in the team's strategy that have paid dividends.
Patrick, a junior left winger, now plays with Ryan Mickey and Jack Hughes, a call-up who ranks third on the team in scoring.
“Every game we're getting better. We're picking up new things,” Patrick said.
Leslie, meanwhile, initially was an alternate for the All-Star Game. Less than a week before the game, however, he was notified that he would be playing alongside Patrick.
“I got to talk to him the very next day at practice,” Baker said of Leslie. “He was really excited about the opportunity. The boys were really upbeat and happy that he was able to make it as well.”
Baker praised Leslie for his vision, puck-handling ability, quick release and accurate shot.
“Ben's one of the unique cases. When he was a ninth-grader, he was on the varsity team,” Baker said. “Ben has a lot of skill. He's been playing hockey for years.”
Penn-Trafford players and coaches agree another player could have been chosen in for All-Star Game. Goaltender Reno Patrick has faced a barrage of shots but has been a steady presence.
“The stats don't really show it, but I believe he should be in the All-Star Game,” Gavin Patrick said of Reno, no relation.
With the regular season reaching the stretch run, Penn-Trafford is hoping to solidity a playoff spot in the ultra-competitive South/East Division.
“Anyone can make the playoffs at this point, and anyone can be knocked out, depending how they finish the last four or five games of the season,” Baker noted. “I'm just hoping we're in.”
Sean Meyers is a freelance writer.