Hampton hockey hopes to ride fundamentals, goaltending

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Thursday, October 17, 2019 | 5:16 PM


If Hampton hockey is going to enjoy the success it has had in previous seasons as a perennial playoff team, it’ll need to change some things around.

In recent years, Hampton has been one of the highest scoring programs in Class AA. This year, with the loss of its “Super Line” of Justin Adamski, Michael Orban and Matt Commendatore — one of the most productive lines in the PIHL last season — the team will need to hunker down and play a more cohesive and defensively responsible style.

“You’ve got to take each year and play to your skill set and create an identity” said second-year coach Luke Leya. “I think we’re trying to move into a more defensive style of play. More boring, trap-like hockey.

“Last year we’re winning 8-7 or 7-6. This year, I think we’re going to be most successful in 2-1, 1-0 close games … good defensive play and taking care of the puck in our own zone.”

Hampton broke through with a 4-1 Northeast Conference home victory against Shaler on Monday, helping to alleviate the pressure of an early 0-2 hole.

“At this point, it’s been a next-game-up opportunity,” said senior netminder Jake McGee, now in his fourth year as a starter. “We’re just plugging away at our new system, which is certainly defense oriented. We’re trying to get goals where we can and shut it down in the defensive zone.”

McGee was in a timeshare his first two seasons in net, but last year, he took the majority of the starts and shined, earning a spot on the PIHL All-Star Team. He has stopped 71 of 75 shots thru three games for a 2.01 goals-against average. That included a stellar performance against Shaler, where he stopped 39 of 40 shots.

He’s also taking on a large leadership role, particularly with the team’s best skater, senior defenseman Luke Reiser, out until the end of the month.

“It’s the kind of evolution you go through with experience,” he said. “Freshman year, you go in there and you have all these big players coming at you and you’re just trying to get by. But as time goes on, you get used to it and it’s like, ‘OK, what can I do not for myself but for the team around me?’”

Leya won’t panic with a slow start to the season. Last year, his team came out 2-4 before turning things around into a playoff-capable unit with a handful of major wins, including an overtime thriller against eventual Penguin Cup champion Pine-Richland.

Aside from Reiser, the defense returns varsity experience in seniors Ben Cutuli and Ryan Koprivnikar, the latter of which played forward last year but has made a smooth transition.

“I think the biggest thing this year is finding out who will be responsible for us in scoring,” said Leya, who thinks he has 10 or 11 players who have never touched varsity ice before. “That Super Line we had last year is gone and we have big shoes to fill.”

Two players who have been providing those answers early are sophomore Logan Scanlon and freshman Joey Pankowski, who have surpassed expectations despite having no varsity ice time last season. Sophomore Adam Dembowski and senior Mitch Hurst bring back varsity experience up front as well.

“I know I’m pretty happy with how we’ve played,” Leya said. “We’re competing. We’re right there. It’s just seeing which of these guys can step up and fill some shoes that are bigger than they are used to wearing.”

With a defensive mindset and an expectation to win close games, special teams take center stage. An example is Hampton’s tilt with Armstrong, when it entered the third period up 2-1 before giving up two power-play goals to eventually lose, 4-2.

“Cleaning up the penalty kill is something we’re working at,” said Leya, whose team was 1 for 6 on the power play through the first three games.

“That’s not going to cut it,” he said. “You’ve got to be 25 percent in this league. You’re going to see four to five penalties per team every night. Whoever can pop three goals in on the power play is going to be the team that wins most of these games.”

When it comes down to it, however, improving tactically won’t help if the sum is not greater than the parts. It’s something McGee is trying to preach with this squad.

“Obviously we can work on puck possession, reducing shots, spending more time in the (offensive zone),” he said. “But I think the basis for that comes to team chemistry. It’s going to be more how we develop as a unit rather than how we develop our skills.”

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