High-scoring Burrell hockey improving on defensive end

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Sunday, November 18, 2018 | 7:57 PM


Burrell hockey coach Max Rickard walked into the locker room following last Monday’s 7-1 win over Central Valley and told his players it was the best performance he had seen of his team in his three years with the program.

For Rickard, it was great to see his plan come together.

Even without leading goal scorer Tyler Stewart, who was in Dallas with his Esmark Stars travel team, the Bucs were explosive on offense. They also defended well, limited shot attempts and forced turnovers in the neutral zone against an opponent right behind them in the standings.

The win improved the Bucs’ record to 7-0 and provided a case study in how they are making strides in defending their zone.

“This last game showed the true way we can play against anybody in this league,” Rickard said. “We gave up nine shots in the first period and maybe another 13 or 14 the rest of the game. The defense made great first passes out of the zone to the wingers. The wingers were on their points and doing what the needed to do down in the zone to win battles. Our neutral zone play was excellent. We were creating turnovers and disruption. I think eventually it took a toll on Central Valley, and that’s where we took off.”

Rickard stressed a need to become better defensively over the last couple of seasons.

The Bucs have the weaponry to rack up high goal totals. In the past, they ended up in track meets with opponents.

The numbers show an improvement in their own end this season. They allowed a dozen fewer goals at this point of the season than a year ago.

Defenders Nathan Smith and Bryce Schueler have been in the program for a couple of years, and additions such as Anthony George helped solidify the blue line.

Smith was injured before returning against Central Valley, and Rickard was impressed with what he saw, saying Smith will be an important two-way defenseman moving forward.

“I think our defensemen have improved over time, which is what you want to see not only from a coaching perspective but from a player perspective as well if they want to move onto the next level of junior or collegiate hockey,” Rickard said. “Each player is starting to realize what they can and can’t do.”

Andrew Burkett has been strong in goal with a .927 save percentage and a 2.67 goals-against average.

Rickard also credited his forwards for having better defensive responsibility. The players have seen the benefits.

“Coach has really laid the hammer that if the other team doesn’t get any shots on goal they can’t win,” Stewart said. “He’s been telling us to limit them to as little shots as possible and executing breakouts out of the zone as fast as we can.”

“Everyone is just maturing, and the offense is realizing that if we back check in our own zone that the goals are going to come,” Burrell center Dylan Zelonka said. “When the whole team buys into that, it makes a big impact on the game.”

Burrell’s goal-scoring prowess hasn’t slowed down, either. They scored 50 goals in the first seven games, 20 more than anyone else in PIHL Division II.

The addition of Jonas Sopko is providing a benefit, and the offense figures to get stronger with the addition of Stewart’s Esmark Stars teammate Gio Palombo. A Penn Hills resident, Palombo joins the team Monday.

Stewart has 18 goals in six games, but when he was unavailable last Monday, the Bucs still filled the net. Zelonka had a natural hat trick in the first period. Logan Schoepf scored twice, and Cole Vazzana and Nathan Smith had a goal apiece. The Bucs outshot Central Valley, 40-21.

Zelonka leads the team with 13 goals and 13 assists. He jokingly said he hopes Stewart will let him lead the team in points for the rest of the month before retaking the top spot. The two are good friends and the top two scorers in the league.

Not having Stewart and still putting forth a great offensive effort gave everyone a boost of morale.

“It raised everyone’s confidence because he’s such a big scorer, and when he wasn’t there, we were still able to put the puck in the net,” Zelonka said. “I think that showed the rest of the team that we are better than maybe we even thought.”

Jerin Steele is a freelance writer.

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