Deer Lakes aims to contend in PIHL Division 2 playoffs

Monday, February 19, 2024 | 9:51 AM

With a 12-1 win over Trinity on Feb. 8, Deer Lakes officially clinched a spot in the PIHL Division 2 playoffs.

The Lancers will be the fourth-place team out of the Gold Division, but after battling against the top three teams ahead of them — Bishop Canevin, Burrell and Neshannock — they are confident they can be successful once the postseason begins.

Deer Lakes (9-6-1) had two tight 2-1 losses to the division-leading Crusaders, the second one going into overtime. Though the Lancers didn’t give Bishop Canevin its first loss of the season, the results gave them assurance they can skate with the best in the division.

“I’m really looking forward to it,” Deer Lakes coach Jonathan Merlo said. “We’re playing some pretty good hockey. We took Bishop Canevin to overtime. I thought we were the better team, but we couldn’t finish when we had the chances, and we had quite a few really good chances.”

Deer Lakes’ win, combined with a loss by Central Valley to Elizabeth Forward, secured fourth place.

The Lancers have a balanced lineup with seven players amassing double-digit point totals. They also have been good at goal prevention, allowing 42, which is second to Bishop Canevin in D2.

Those traits go together. Being good in the defensive end feeds into the Lancers’ transition game and allows them to create scoring chances.

Outside of off nights where they gave up seven goals to Burrell twice and Central Valley once, they’ve kept the opposition down for the most part.

They’ve held opponents to two goals or fewer 11 times. Lancers goalie Aaron Haney has a 2.56 goals-against average and four shutouts.

“We have struggled in the defensive zone from time to time, but when we’re on we are a really good hockey team,” Merlo said. “That goes from our goalie to our defensemen to our forwards. If everyone does their job, we’ve seen that we’re a dangerous team. Our defense plays into our offense pretty well. I like where we’re at.”

Ryan Grunden leads the way offensively with 16 goals and assists for 32 points. His linemate, Zachary Nacey has 21 points (eight goals). Mark Rauenswinter (17), Giovanni Porco (16), RJ Noullet (13) and Mason Cervone are forwards with double-digit point totals.

Eliot Belli has provided a boost offensively from the blue line with seven goals and nine assists.

“Our team is not top heavy,” Merlo said. “We have three really good lines and really good defensemen. They can all produce at any time. If someone is having an off night, somebody else can come in and pick up the slack, which we’ve seen time and time again. Some of our goals by defensemen have come in crucial times. We’re balanced from line to line, which is a strength of our team. I’m looking forward to seeing how that plays out as we get into the depths of the playoffs.”

The Lancers made it to the semifinals last year and are gearing up to try and make another run.

“I just love watching our team play,” Merlo said. “The best thing about our team this year is that we have a group of young men that want to win a hockey game for each other. There’s a lot of times you don’t get that.

“It takes a full team effort to win a hockey game, and our guys are realizing that as they’ve played against some of the better teams in our league. Now that they realize that, they are becoming that better team in those games.”

Jerin Steele is a freelance writer


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