PIHL Team of the Week for week ending Nov. 24, 2019

Sunday, November 24, 2019 | 11:34 PM

The 2018-19 season was historic for the Burrell hockey team.

The Bucs were PIHL runners-up in Division 2, but that’s not to take away from what the Bucs did elsewhere.

On the big stage at the national tournament in the open division, the Bucs raced to a second-place finish. They were close to a national title.

This season hasn’t been as kind.

Part of the reason for that is a depleted roster. There aren’t many players left from the successful squad, partly because of graduation, and partly because some players didn’t return for various reasons.

The Bucs lost Division 2 Player of the Year Tyler Stewart, top goaltender Drew Burkett, who is now playing collegiately, and others, such as Bryce Schueler and Dylan Zelonka, who were key pieces at their positons.

Between the three skaters, that’s 154 points to replace. Stewart had 76, including 50 goals; Zelonka had 60, including 39 assists; and Schueler assisted on 18 goals, scoring three. Burkett was 18-1 with a 2.63 goals against average in goal.

And the Bucs went through a coaching change.

So this year has been tough.

“The transition has been hard for the players after what they experienced last year, and it’s been different for them for sure,” new coach Fred Neal said. “I didn’t go through that either, so it’s all the same for me, but we have to get used to being the underdogs, as opposed to them having things maybe come easier last year.”

The Bucs lost their first five games, but got a game back because of a forfeit (roster issue).

So they entered this past week of PIHL action 1-4. They exit the week 3-4.

“I’m proud of these guys. They’re good kids and they’re working hard,” Neal said. “It’s hard to lose five in a row and you wonder what they’re going to do. Will they keep working hard or start thinking about other things than winning hockey? Last week was big for us to come out and get two wins, and hopefully we build on it.”

It was certainly helpful to get Gio Palombo back this week. Palombo had 50 points last year, including 27 goals, which was second on the team. He had missed the first five games with a foot injury.

He picked up right where he left off.

Burrell scored nine times in Monday’s win against Wilmington, including the first four goals of the game. Ultimately, the closest Wilmington got was 6-4, before Burrell pulled away for good.

Palombo scored five times and assisted on what turned out to be the game-winner, a goal by Preston Rice in the middle stages of the second period.

“We got Gio back this week. He’s definitely a guy that we were excited to get back. We got off to a fast start, and it was a matter of keeping the foot on the gas,” Neal said. “Wilmington was able to fight back a few times and make a game out of it, but fortunately we were able to keep going. Nobody will give it to us.”

Another key in the game was the penalty kill for the Bucs, which was successful on six of seven occasions. Jonas Sopko had four points, including three helpers, while Anthony George had four points. He scored twice and assisted on two other goals.

The Bucs followed it up with a win Thursday in a shootout over Morgantown.

“Thursday was an excellent matchup for us. We’ve got a short bench, but our top guys are really good and we’ve got other guys developing,” Neal said. “Morgantown doesn’t give up a lot of goals, and we couldn’t rely on easy goals. It was a team effort for sure, and we emphasized that we needed five guys playing hard every time they were on the ice.”

Down 3-2 late, the Bucs took a penalty and gave up a goal to have the deficit moved to two, before scoring twice in the final two minutes with the goalie removed from the crease to tie the game.

The shootout went three skaters, with Burrell coming away with a 5-4 win.

Now it’s about stacking for Neal’s Bucs. As the 12-skater team continues to grow and push through this season, they’ll look to their senior leadership from Sopko and Cole Vazzana, as well as their talent elsewhere, which, other than the other names already mentioned, includes talented sophomore Logan Schoepf.

They’ll return to the ice Dec. 2 against Ringgold, which defeated the Bucs for last season’s Division 2 title. Puck drop is slated for 9 p.m. at the Pittsburgh Ice Arena.

Honorable mentions:

Latrobe — The Icecats are seemingly on this list every week. They keep winning. Latrobe won twice last week, and the already one-time Team of the Week, is still unbeaten. The Icecats picked up a 6-0 win Monday over Meadville, when they outshot the Bulldogs, 51-11. They then beat South Fayette, 8-0, on Thursday

Bishop McCort — The Crushers knocked North Catholic from the ranks of the unbeaten this past week. It was a 4-1 victory for Bishop McCort Tuesday, with the shots on goal totals one-sided, as well. It was a 37-20 advantage in a flip of what the Trojans had been doing to opponents thus far

North Allegheny — Another team already honored with a team of the week award, the Tigers won 5-4 against Upper St. Clair Monday and 6-4 against Peters Township Thursday for their two wins this past week

Wheeling Park — Scoring 15 goals usually gets you strong consideration, and the league’s friends from West Virginia did just that in a 15-3 win over Wheeling Catholic this past week.

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