Burrell hockey goes from dormant to Division II finalist in 2 years
By: Jerin Steele
Sunday, March 18, 2018 | 11:09 PM
For a program that was dormant only two years ago, Burrell's rise to the PIHL Division II finals has been quick, but it's not surprising to players and coaches.
Given the Bucs' offensive firepower, which is led by Tyler Stewart's league-best 49 goals, and incremental improvements made in the defensive zone paired with good goaltending, No. 3 Burrell feels it has the right mix to win its first title. The Bucs play No. 1 Moon in the finals at 5:30 p.m. Monday at UPMC Lemieux Sports Complex in Cranberry.
“As you go through the season, you hope that your team can become one that is capable of hoisting a banner and a trophy,” Burrell coach Max Rickard said. “It's definitely special to play for a championship, and I'm glad to be a part of it.”
The Bucs understand they also face a stern test in Moon. Burrell scored a league-best 131 goals, but Moon has yielded only 30, the fewest in the classification by 20 goals.
The Tigers were scheduled to play in Class AAA, the PIHL's highest classification, after winning the AA title last year, but a lack of participation forced them to co-op with other schools, and they moved to Division II.
Burrell (15-5) found the net four times against the Tigers (19-1) in the season opener, a 7-4 loss, but with Stewart suspended for the Dec. 18 rematch, Moon earned a 3-0 win, scoring twice in the third period.
“It's hard to say what's going to happen in the final, but no two games are the same, that's for sure,” Rickard said. “You always like to see the offense putting up numbers, but everything starts with defense first. I would rather see us play a strong defensive game and let that lead to scoring chances on the other end.”
Stewart is keeping his goal bonanza going in the playoffs, scoring five times in two games, and recently received national attention when a clip of him scoring a spectacular goal from last Monday's TribHSSN broadcast of Burrell vs. Ringgold was featured on ESPN's SportsCenter Top 10 list.
Stewart was unaware of his ESPN fame until he showed up at school the next day.
“When I went into class everyone was like, ‘Dude you were on SportsCenter,' and I was like, ‘What are you talking about?' ” Stewart said. “Someone showed me the video, and afterward, I was like, ‘Wow that's crazy.' I never expected to be on SportsCenter.”
With Stewart, Dylan Zelonka and Logan Schoepf, Burrell has the ability to light up the scoreboard, but the Bucs will have to solve the league's top goalie in Moon's Lucas Konecsni.
Konecsni led the league with a .950 save percentage in regulation and had four shutouts. Bucs goalie Andrew Burkett has shown the ability to rise to the occasion in the past, including a 48-save effort in a 3-3 tie at Meadville last year. Burkett's been solid in the postseason, with a .910 save percentage, 10 points better than the regular season.
“The defense has been really good for me in front of the net, and I really can't ask for a better team around me,” Burkett said. “The coaches have done a great job developing us for situations like this all year, and this is where we wanted to be.”
Burrell will be without Cole Vazzana, who was suspended for three games and has not participated in the playoffs. Rickard said his net-front presence on the power play as a bigger body is a tough loss.
The opportunity to make history for the program is not lost on the players, and they hope they can break through for that first championship Monday.
“It'd be unbelievable,” Burkett said. “Our school has never really acknowledged hockey before last year, so it'd be great to bring back a championship for the program.”
Jerin Steele is a freelance writer.