By Michael Battista
Coming into this season, the College’s club ice hockey team had the biggest target on its back in the team’s 40-year history. The team’s 23 wins last season propelled the Lions to their third conference title, and their first in the Colonial States College Hockey Conference. The team also made its first trip to the American Collegiate Hockey Association regional playoffs.
Now, the team is skating back into the playoffs, which will be played on home ice because of last season’s conference title. As the fourth seed, the Lions are preparing to play fifth seeded West Chester University on Friday, Feb. 16 at Loucks Ice Center at the Lawrenceville School.
Head Coach Andrew Ducko admits that playing close to the College will give the players an upper hand over West Chester.
“(It’s) very special to the boys as we play well at home,” Ducko said. “It puts the other teams out of their comfort zone.”
Ducko is in his third year coaching the team to continuous success, following a regular season championship in 2016 and a conference title in 2017. The team, which plays in Division II of the ACHA, has posted a record of 14-13-2 during the regular season and 10-6-2 in conference against teams like Seton Hall University, Rutgers University and the University of Pennsylvania.
At the start of this season, Ducko wanted to prepare his team for a possible return to the playoffs. The preparation included scheduling out of conference games against some of the ACHA’s best teams.
“We scheduled six games against Division I ACHA teams and we played very competitive against them,” Ducko said. “We played Villanova’s top team and Towson’s top team. We also scheduled all our non-conference games against teams that are ranked top 10 in our region.”
The Lions biggest asset this season has been defense. The team posted the second fewest goals allowed against opponents in the league with 64.
“We’ve got a very solid squad back on defense,” junior goaltender Albert Gregorio said. “We’ve got people who are very responsible on the defensive end and they’re very talented offensively. We can rush the puck out of our zone which takes pressure off the goalies.”
One player who exemplified the team’s defensive play was senior defender and team captain Dylan McMurrer. Not only is he one of the team’s top point leaders with 26, but he has over 100 career points over his three year career, despite missing time due to an injury.
However, following a 6-3 loss on the road against Millersville University, the team learned that a significant leg injury would sideline McMurrer for the remainder of the season.
“Dylan is our captain and a huge part of our team’s success on and off the ice,” Ducko said. “Dylan blocked three shots a game, so three guys will have to block one more. He had a point a game, so every game someone will have to step up. He took six shots and had five takeaways, so we need to distribute those throughout the rest of the boys.”
Ducko compares this situation to backup quarterback Nick Foles leading the Philadelphia Eagles.
“I actually told the team two weeks ago it is similar to the Eagles losing Carson Wentz,” Ducko said. “At our team meeting we discussed that many different players can step up and be our Nick Foles.”
Several players have stepped up in the remaining three games of the regular season. Defensemen such as sophomore Matthew Liebers and sophomore Marc Tietjen have helped fill the gap. In the match against Monmouth University on Friday, Feb. 9, the Lions limited Monmouth to only 21 shots in their 3-2 overtime victory.
“(Liebers has) really stepped up and played a lot of more responsible defense,” Gregorio said. “He’s always offensively minded, but now he’s bought in and played defensively more.”
The team has three games separating them from reclaiming the conference title for the second year in a row. With a squad lined with offensive depth, capable players and highly defensive lines, the Lions are ready to play in the CSCHC playoffs.