CASTLE SHANNON — In season one as the head coach of the Bishop Canevin boys hockey team, Kevin Pawlos won a Penguins Cup title with the Crusaders.
In year two, it’ll be a new challenge, as they’ll look to regroup and make another run — including some unfinished business after a 7-3 loss to Central Bucks South in the state championship game.
But first, the Crusaders will have to get through the extremely competitive Class AA field in the PIHL. Their status as defending champs won’t make that much easier.
“Any time you have a successful season like that, I think everyone goes into the season and circles your name on the calendar,” Pawlos said. “You know that you’re going to pretty much get the best out of every team every night. I think we have a good squad again this year. I’m hoping the guys come ready to play.”
So far they have, as the Crusaders rolled, 7-3, over Mt. Lebanon on opening night and blanked North Hills, 3-0, a week later to take the early lead in the West Division.
The Crusaders are built a little bit differently than their championship squad in 2016. Pawlos expects them to be a bit more dangerous offensively and not as reliant on the defense and goaltender Neko Borghini as they were a year ago.
Senior captain Jacob Ondrejko will be expected to produce at his point-per-game pace of the last two seasons in addition to bringing along some of the younger players as one of the team’s leaders alongside alternate captain Josh Ruffing.
“I think coming in, they really embraced the challenge,” Pawlos said of his leadership group. “They learned a lot from the seniors last year and especially now, they’ve had some successful seasons in their four-year tenure, so they’re using that and drawing on that experience. It really helps us and helps the young guys progress.”
Thus far it’s been the youngsters that have shouldered the load offensively. Sophomore forward Daniel Tkac has two goals and four assists, transfer Chase Evans has a goal and three assists and sophomore defenseman Tomas Krukovski has a goal and an assist. But the biggest contribution has come from an even younger player.
In his PIHL debut, freshman forward Justin Angle had a four-point night against Mt. Lebanon, including a hat trick. Angle is probably the smallest player on the team, but Pawlos says he more than makes up for it with his toughness and willingness to do the dirty work.
“He has a bigger heart than his size, for sure,” Pawlos said. “Maybe teams look at him in warmups before the game and really don’t think much of him, but you find out pretty quickly that he’s going to bring it every night and every shift. That’s what we like.”
It’s the combination of skill and toughness that’s made Angle a difference-maker in the early going for the Crusaders.
“He’s a really good player,” Pawlos added. “He’s quick. He’s feisty. He’s a player that will get under a team’s skin. I like that he’s not afraid to go into the dirty areas. [Against Mt. Lebanon], he had three goals and I don’t think any of them were from outside the crease. You really can’t ask any more from him, especially in his first game.”
Through two games, the Crusaders have trailed for a total of 38 seconds, but that could change on Thursday, when they face a tough Greater Latrobe team. Latrobe features the leading scorer in Class AA, Jared Schimizzi, who has four goals and five assists in two games. Facing some adversity is where the experience of the playoff run should pay off, particularly from in goal, according to Pawlos.
“You really can’t put a price tag on it,” he said. “Coming into last year, we had a backup with John Ruffing. [Borghini and Ruffing] kind of flip-flopped games for a while. I think Neko identified things he needed to work on and once he did, he just kind of honed in on it. Down the stretch, he was just rock solid for us.”
Bishop Canevin and Greater Latrobe will face off at Ice Castle at 8:40 on Thursday, following Mt. Lebanon and West Allegheny.