North Hills hockey hopes last year’s strong finish carries over

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Saturday, October 23, 2021 | 11:01 AM


North Hills hockey was able to close out last year’s regular season as strong as any team in the PIHL’s Class A. But now the program wants more following a crushing ending.

The Indians went 12-6-1 in 2020-21, finishing second in the Southwest Division behind Chartiers Valley. But North Hills won seven straight games to close the regular season, scoring four or more goals in each contest. That included a 4-0 blanking of the Colts in the regular season.

However, in their lone playoff game, the Indians fell to Chartiers Valley, 3-2.

“Last year, I thought we were one of the deepest teams in Class A,” coach Kevin Pawlos said. “We had a really good core — a solid group of leaders — on that team.

“Down the stretch, we really finished strong. It allowed us to gain momentum into that playoff game against (Chartiers Valley), who unfortunately was a very good team. It was a very close game, a game I think we easily could have won. But sometimes the bounces don’t go your way and we got knocked out in the first round.”

One facet that consistently lifted the Indians during the 2020-21 season was on the man advantage. North Hills had Class A’s best power play, connecting at a clip of 34.8%.

“The secret to any power play is puck movement,” Pawlos said. “We had a really good net-front presence and moved the puck really well up top with our top three guys. And we just got pucks on net.”

That’s why Pawlos and the Indians feel last season could have had a happier ending. The Indians’ loss to Chartiers Valley finished with the team unable to connect on a power play.

“We had a 6-on-4 when we pulled the goalie, and also had a breakaway right before the end of the game,” Pawlos said. “It wasn’t like we didn’t have our chances, we just couldn’t capitalize.”

North Hills lost a decent bit to graduation last season, but does return its top scorer in senior Derek Pietrzyk, who netted 18 goals to go along with seven assists last year. Unfortunately, an early-season wrist injury will keep him out of the lineup for a while, according to Pawlos.

“Derek’s a huge asset for us,” Pawlos said. “It’s amazing to watch him play. His biggest attribute is his ability to play goal line to goal line. … He’s not afraid to take a shot when he has the opportunity and he’s really gritty. He gets his nose dirty.

“We’re going to miss him dearly. But we’re going to try to maintain and tread water while he’s out.”

While Pietrzyk recovers, Pawlos will turn to junior Alec Fiegel to fill the void. He scored 14 goals last year, and added six assists.

“He’s a little spark plug,” Pawlos said. “He’s not the tallest of guys, but he’s feisty. He’s not afraid to muck it up a little bit, go to the corners and go to the dirty areas. He’s got a really good shot. It’s been a real pleasure to see him grow as a player.”

The Indians will also lean on the play of junior Tony Kiger, who missed time last season with an injury, as well as sophomore Evan Benscoter.

The blue line is fortified by junior Owen Sroka, who scored five goals and assisted 14 more in 2020-21. Sophomores Ben Baskinger and Joe Spivak join Sroka in the defensive ranks.

Last season, goalie Tyler Manfred played nearly every minute as a junior and posted a 3.13 goals-against average and .853 save percentage. He returns with some added depth in Cole Wanner and AJ Ubanek.

“We’re really blessed with riches when it comes to goaltenders, and not every team can say that,” Pawlos said. “We’re very fortunate that we’re in the situation that we’re in.”

North Hills is thought to be one of the favorites in Class A this year. But, as usual, the classification is deep in talent and competitiveness. That makes every night an important one to win, especially in a Southwest Division that features Chartiers Valley — which made the Class A finals last year — as well as Moon and North Catholic.

“We’ve always been in one of the most competitive divisions,” Pawlos said. “I don’t think that’s going to change this year. We know that every game is going to be tough. It’s imperative that we get off to a good start.”

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