Plum in prime position midway through hockey season
Sunday, December 15, 2019 | 11:48 AM
As Plum hockey reached the midpoint of the PIHL Class AA season, it found itself tied atop the Northeast Division standings with Armstrong with a pair of games in hand.
There’s a long way to go, with plenty of games to be played and the schedule running into late February, but the Mustangs have positioned themselves well.
They’ve scored timely goals in the first half and had some younger players develop well to go along with a veteran core.
That has led to a 5-4 record entering Thursday’s game with Quaker Valley.
It’s been a good start Mustangs coach Phil Mains wants to build upon, and he’s hopeful they can finish the season with a division title.
“I know its cliché, but we’re just looking at the next game,” Mains said. “As we started the season, our main goal was to win the division, and that’s what we’re working towards now.”
Plum started 5-2 but has had some injuries of late. The Mustangs’ top two scorers, Logan Schlegel (14 goals, three assists) and Nic Pushic (four goals, seven assists), have been out of the lineup the last two games.
Mains is hopeful both can return after the holiday break Jan. 6 against Franklin Regional. The Mustangs only have 15 skaters without injuries, so some younger players have seen extended playing time.
“It’s kind of a blessing in disguise,” Mains said. “(Schlegel and Pushic) eat up a lot of minutes for us, so we’ve had to plug other guys in, and they are getting a lot of experience in the midpoint of the season. I think that’ll make us stronger down the stretch when we get both of them back.”
A player who has stepped up is Nate McMasters, who hadn’t skated let alone played hockey before the spring.
McMasters has a twin brother on the team, Nick, and decided he wanted to join him. So Nate went to some pickup games in the spring and worked hard all summer to learn hockey.
Now he’s seeing a lot of ice time and has become a feel-good story.
“We’ve had a couple people come out to our practices, and when I tell them about Nate, they can’t pick him out,” Mains said.
“They can’t tell that he just started playing hockey. He fits right in. His skating has improved immensely and he’s getting used to having the puck on his stick and where he needs to be on the ice. He’s been a pleasure to coach, and it has been awesome to watch him develop.”
An area Plum would like to improve is its second-period play. They have a minus-7 goal differential in the middle period. Mains said a number of things have happened to them in the second period, but taking penalties has been detrimental, especially in the last two losses to Armstrong, 7-2, and Hempfield, 9-2.
“We took four or five penalties in a row at Armstrong, and that turned a 1-1 game into a 3-1 game before the end of the second,” Mains said.
“Then against Hempfield, we lost our matchups, which is on me. As a head coach, you’re always looking for your matchups on home ice. Teams load up at the end of periods sometimes, and they scored three times in the final two minutes to make it a 4-1 game.”
An area of strength has been the third period. In their five wins, the Mustangs have a plus-10 goal differential in the final period.
Plum did plenty of off-ice conditioning in the summer to counteract having a smaller roster, and that has paid dividends when trying to close games.
“We try to keep these guys in tip-top condition, so everybody can play extra minutes that they have to log since we don’t have a roster of 22 kids,” Mains said. “If we can keep it a close game, I have faith that our guys will come through in the third period, and that’s been the case more than a few times this year.”
Jerin Steele is a freelance writer
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