Hampton hockey focuses on defense to stop slump

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Saturday, January 23, 2021 | 8:01 AM


The slumping Hampton hockey team is slowing things down in hopes of heating things up.

“We need to play a conservative game and get back to our style of play,” coach Luke Leya said. “When we try to go run and gun, it has not been too kind to us.”

After a 2-0 start, the Talbots (2-5) had lost five in a row in a covid-interrupted season entering their Jan. 21 game against undefeated Baldwin.

Team defense is the main culprit during the skid, capped by a 13-5 loss to South Fayette on Jan. 14. The Talbots fell behind 7-0 and rallied to 8-5 in the loss, which was their first game in 37 days — a span that included only a couple of practices — because of a three-week state-mandated shutdown followed by a four-day pause at Hampton.

It was an unusual return to the rink. Unlike the Talbots’ home ice (Frozen Pond Arena), which allows parents of players in the stands, all spectators were banned from Mt. Lebanon Ice Center.

“Fans had to watch from a laptop in the parking lot,” Leya said.

They saw another subpar effort. Hampton has been outscored 47-14 during their skid, allowing 9.4 goals a game. Junior goaltender Brendon Frankel, a first-year starter, is near the bottom of the PIHL in goals allowed (7.95 per game) and save percentage (.798). He has faced 262 shots — third-most in the PIHL — while playing 340 of a possible 357 minutes.

Frankel made 61 saves against Armstrong on Dec. 3, but the River Hawks had 68 shots in a 7-3 win. Three weeks earlier, Hampton had defeated Armstrong, 5-4.

The Talbots also suffered losses by scores of 10-2, 9-2 and 8-2 during the slump. Nobody in the 45-team PIHL Varsity A has allowed more goals than Hampton.

“As a unit, we have to be much more careful with the puck in our own zone,” Leya said. “We’re giving up far too many chances.”

To reverse that, Leya plans to implement a slower-tempo game. The Talbots have too often become careless with the puck, resulting in opposing chances — and goals.

“We’ve got to do a better job of slowing down,” he said. “That’s our problem. We’ve got to start being more conservative and careful with the puck. When you start to go run and gun with these teams, I don’t know that we have the offensive depth to do it.”

Hampton, which is 5-20 dating to the start of last season, is a young team. The 23-man roster includes only three seniors and nine freshmen. Senior forward Ethan Varley, who is tied for the team lead with 12 points (five goals, seven assists), said the youngsters just need to play with a little more poise.

“We need to figure out a purpose with the puck,” he said. “We are a very young team, and I feel a lot of times some of us tend to get frightened whenever they get the puck because they don’t want to mess up.

“They end up making a mistake as opposed to just holding onto the puck and looking up and seeing time and space and realizing what plays can be available. And if nothing is available, just dump it into their zone.”

Leya said junior defenseman Owen Cirlingione and freshman center James Elk have been a couple “bright spots” on the season. Senior Mitch Hurst also has 12 points (four goals, eight assists), tied for the team lead.

After Baldwin, the Talbots were scheduled to host Mars on Jan. 24 and Hempfield on Feb. 1. They had 11 regular-season games to play, as of Jan. 20.

Despite going 2½ months without a win, the Talbots remain in the hunt for a PIHL playoff spot. The winner of the four-team Class AA Northeast Division clinches an automatic berth. As of Jan. 20, Hampton trailed first-place Armstrong (3-5) by one-half game.

“Even though our record is not pretty, we are still very much in the fight,” Varley said. “I think a lot of the players can look up to it and realize, ‘Hey this isn’t where we want to be, but somehow we still have a chance.’ “

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