NEW KENSINGTON, Pa. — Sergio Benitez was the last player out of the locker room as Plum hockey packed things up following the Mustangs’ 6-1 season-opening loss to Peters Township on Monday.
No one could blame him for taking his time. Benitez made 41 stops to keep the game competitive and as head coach Vince Somma put it, “burned about 3,000 to 4,000 calories.”
Unfortunately for Benitez and Plum, that might be a familiar stat line this season. The Mustangs, the 2017 Class AA Penguins Cup champions, were moved up to Class AAA during PIHL reclassification this offseason, while at the same time, they lost leading AA scorer Nolan Puhala, top assist man Dillon Joyce and top defenseman Ryan Loebig.
What remains is a shell of the Mustangs team that ran through the playoffs in the spring. They would have had a tough time reloading at the AA level, and that process will be exacerbated by the move up to Class AAA. If the Mustangs are going to successfully make the transition to the Class AAA level, a lot is riding on the few returning regulars from last season’s championship run.
“I knew going into it, there was going to be a lot,” Benitez sad. I knew last year, we had the offense to back me up. This year, there’s not so much offense, so there’s a lot more pressure.\
It’s a role reversal for Benitez, who was a first-year starter on the senior-laden squad in 2016-17. Now, he’ll have to use the experience gained on the road to a Penguins Cup victory to backstop a new group of Mustangs back to that goal at an even higher level. That work started in the offseason.
“There was a lot more work on conditioning,” Benitez said. “We knew we were going to be a lot smaller team with fewer kids. We focused on defense. Last year, we had a powerhouse. We had Nolan and we had a bunch of kids that could score. This year, we’re playing a more defensive game with a more defensive focus.”
While the shot total might not reflect that effort, the Mustangs did do a good job of clearing rebounds and keeping Benitez’s crease clear. He though the saw some encouraging signs, despite the lopsided scoresheet.
“I thought we held it together for the most part,” he said. “The defense kept everything to the outside. I could have stopped more. It’s the first game and it’s tough going up against a team like Peter.”
If it ends up being a series of long nights for Benitez, Somma feels confident that he’ll be able to keep the young Mustangs hanging around.
“The whole thing (falls on him),” Somma said. “He’s our senior. He’s our senior, he’s our leader and I think he’s accepted that. He’s out there having a ball.”
Somma also thought the newly defensive Mustangs did a better job of executing their new game plan.
“We kept them to the perimeter,” he said. “We maintained our house. We blocked about another 17 shots. … We’ll take it from there.”