Deep lineup helps Deer Lakes hockey contend with Division 2 leaders

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Monday, January 30, 2023 | 12:13 PM


A winning hockey team possesses discipline, outstanding puck movement and team chemistry through all lines and defensemen pairings. Deer Lakes appears to have that winning formula in the PIHL’s Division 2.

Deer Lakes is 12-1 and holds a 6-1 Gold Division record, good for second place behind Bishop Canevin (12-0). The Lancers boast the best goals for and against marks in the league, outscoring opponents 80-20.

Deer Lakes coach Jonathan Merlo credits goaltender Benjamin Korol for the team’s defensive success. Korol has a 1.59 goals-against average and .939 save percentage.

“Ben, he’s an all-star,” Merlo said. “He really is the best goalie, in my opinion, in all D2. He has stood on his head time and time again to keep our teammates in games and to keep the goals against low.”

Korol posted 12 wins, including four shutouts, and has benefited from a collective effort in front of him.

“I would put my top two defensemen against anybody in D2,” Merlo said. “With the support of our forwards, specifically our centers, we do a pretty good job of getting the puck out quickly and going on the offensive attack, so when the pucks are out of your zone, that definitely helps with the goals-against average there.”

Defensemen Hank Szenyeri, Jake Bradley, Ryan Bogacz and Carter Catalano are the core of the defense and keep forwards out of the slot. The forwards showcase tenacious backchecking, which allows the team to break out of the zone.

“I like how our guys can backcheck really, really good and we just kind of all come together and really like to help our goalie on defense because our goalie bails us out a lot,” said AJ Schaaf, a first-line center and Lancers captain. “It’s nice to get back to him and obviously just helps us on offense, too, because we can get that puck back and go back up on offense.”

Winger Shawn McIntyre noted the team’s commitment to backchecking helps it convert the forecheck.

“Our coach has said multiple times that he thinks our backcheck is the best in the league,” McIntyre said. “Going against these other good teams that can score and having a really good defensive core is really good.”

McIntyre, Schaaf and Ryan Grunden make up the team’s first line of forwards. Schaaf is averaging 3.45 points and has scored 21 goals, along with 17 assists. McIntyre has notched 15 goals and 11 assists, and Grunden has 11 goals and 7 assists.

The line has contributed 48 of the team’s 80 goals. Merlo classified all three players as “all-stars.”

“It was kind of in question about the start of the season with new guys coming together,” said Schaaf, who is the third-leading scorer in Division 2. “With new guys, you got to wonder how it’s going to go and we clicked really well. When we move the puck, we’re a really big threat, and I feel like it’s just going well. We clicked and just continued and, hopefully, it stays and continues that way for us this season.”

Merlo said depth wins hockey games in high school.

“We don’t have to rely on just one player, one kid or one line,” Merlo said. “All three lines that we put out there for a game can produce, including our defensemen. I think Hank is averaging a point a game, and when you get production from the defensive side of things that’s massive too. When we put out anybody, we feel confident that they can produce, and they’ve shown that throughout the year.”

Deer Lakes rosters six players averaging a point per game, including RJ Noullet and Mark Rauenswinter. Schaaf said the team’s depth helps take pressure off the first line.

As for the penalty kill, Merlo highlighted a large group capable of contributing.

“Our penalty kill is great,” McIntyre said. “We’re just all over the ice. It seems like other teams can’t really do much. We just really control it the whole time.”

The Lancers’ power play is tops in Division 2, scoring 35% of the time.

Merlo commended each line and attributes the team’s depth to the Deer Lakes’ hot start.

“Without them, we would not be in this scenario that we are in right now, and RJ has had massive goals,” Merlo said. “I don’t know how he scores at the times that he does, but they’re very timely, and he gives us momentum. Mark’s hits and his style of play are game changers, and then Gio (Giovanni Porco) is just the big body that plays a very smooth and solid hockey game.”

He added that Zachary Nacey, a AA/AAA caliber hockey player, is facilitating the third line. Nacey tallied 10 points in 11 games.

The Lancers’ depth helps keep the lines fresh. Merlo mentioned that quick shifts and the multiple lines on the penalty kill are what give the team energy through all 54 minutes. Their energy in the third period is evident as they are outscoring teams 37-1 in the final frame.

“I love everyone on my team, and my coaches especially,” Schaaf said. “They help a lot. Everyone has great spirits up during the game when we’re down in games. It’s huge. We’re down in games, and we can just keep that momentum going with each other.”

Although the team is firing on all cylinders, there is still a lot of hockey left. The Lancers have Neshannock (9-2) and Bishop Canevin twice on their schedule.

“Our practice has been really hard,” McIntyre said. “We’re working really hard in practice. We know these are big games coming up with great teams that we’re playing. So we just need to really work hard.”

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