By JOHN GORALSKI
Brian Cannon shifted uneasily in his seat when asked about his team’s chances this winter. The usual pre-season optimism drained from his face, and he stared out the office window at the Zamboni circling the ice at Veteran’s Rink.
The conversation leading up to the query was focused on a preseason scrimmage the previous night. Cannon had just finished railing about the inexperienced mistakes, the inconsistent offense, and the struggles in the defensive end.
Still, the veteran coach is used to the early struggles of a young, talented squad. It’s not how you start a season that matters. It’s how you finish.
“It’s going to be one week, one game, and one shift at a time because we’re young,” said the coach. “We’re just going to need to compete. I know that’s a little cliché, but we did not compete last night. It was inexperience, confusion, or being a little overwhelmed by the pace of the game. The younger kids might not be accustomed to that, but we got to very few loose pucks.”
It’s not time to circle the wagons. Cannon isn’t ready to condemn his young team. In fact, last year’s team didn’t start out too strong but they seemed to pick up momentum as the season dragged on. The early 2-3 start was followed by a four game winning streak. A five game skid was answered by late wins over teams in higher divisions.
The Hall-Southington hockey team didn’t explode into last winter’s schedule, but they finished strong with a trip to the conference tournament and a postseason battle into the state quarterfinals. Now, with just five seniors, a sprinkling of juniors, and a talented and unproven core of underclassmen, Cannon will try to do it again.
“Going into the season, I’m expecting to be a division three contender. Last night was just a slap back to reality,” said the coach. “Hopefully, we’ll develop over the season. I still think that we’re a contender. Certainly, we’ll make the tournament. I want us to make a little bit of noise and make people take us seriously when they are coming to play us. I think we’ve had that over the last couple of years, and we’ll see what we can do this year to continue it.”
It helps to have a strong core of senior captains on every corner of the ice. Erich Bender is a proven goaltender. Matt Briscoe is a proven defender. Jarod Florian was a top scorer last season, and Jackson Maxwell is finally healthy on the offensive end. Together, they’ll anchor a hungry group of up-and-comers as the team tries to rebound from the loss of 23 varsity skaters over the last two seasons.
Still, Cannon feels that his team’s depth will be their biggest strength.
“We’ve got two solid lines, and we have a third line that we can put in there,” said the coach. “But all three lines need to improve their competitiveness level and their grit because this team isn’t laden with proven talent. On the other hand, we’ve always been laden with work ethic and toughness.”
It helps to have one of the top goalies in Division III because bender will be tested early and often. Cannon said that he has confidence in his experienced goalkeeper.
“Hopefully, he has a strong season, because we’re going to need him. He’s going to get tested a lot, but we’re always a team that leans heavily on its goalie,” said Cannon. “It helps to have [senior keeper] Kyle Partiss, too. It’s good to have someone with that much experience out there in the wings. He stepped in later during last night’s scrimmage, and he made a number of good stops.”
The biggest question is the defense in front of them. Briscoe is a proven veteran. Paul Gambardella and Kyler Cubbage showed promise off the bench last season. The team has some talented young skaters to help anchor the defense, but it could take time to reach their potential.
“The biggest thing that they’re going to need to do is read the ice,” said Cannon. “They have to—not only identify—but deal with threats. That’s what makes defense so hard to play. You’ve got to figure it out whether you’re going up or back, and you have to see threats when they’re starting to develop. You can’t wait.”
Once the puck clears center ice, the Warrior-Knights have enough speed and depth to make teams pay, but scoring hasn’t been overly consistent over the last few seasons.
Maxwell has good speed and the ability to score. Former club player Ocean Curling is expected to make an instant impace. There are strong freshmen and sophomores ready to make their move, and Florian has already proven himself as a top scorer in the conference.
Unfortunately, Florian’s experience might force him to play a bigger role in Hall-Southington’s transition game, so someone else is going to have to step up.
“Florian has great speed, but we’re going to need him to work hard all over the ice,” said Cannon. “Offensively, he’s really good, but we’re going to need him as a catalyst on defense, too. He’s got to bring teams to places that they don’t want to go and force them to make plays with his speed.”
Can this team rise to the challenge? Can they compete against EO Smith-Tolland or Rockville-Bolton-Coventry-RHAM to score another trip to the conference finals? With the team grow like last year’s team to position themselves for another postseason run?
“Come out and witness the roller coaster ride,” Cannon said with a laugh. “This team is fairly young, but I still expect to be a contender in Division III and in a conference which is mostly D-II teams. We have decent depth. We’re a fairly mobile team. Hopefully, we have some scorers.”