Lebanon Hockey Hoping to Catch a Break in the Schedule
Lebanon High boys hockey coach Gary Smith talks to his team after a rough period left the Raiders two goals down against Alvirne in an eventual 4-3 loss on Saturday at Campion Rink.(Jeffrey Porter photograph)
West Lebanon — As youthful rosters go, that of the Lebanon High boys hockey team is already quite battle-tested.
Carrying 16 freshmen and sophomores amid their contingent of 21, the Raiders (2-8; 2-6 NHIAA Division II) were thrust into a top-heavy schedule to begin the season. After a breezy 7-4 win over Timberlane in the season opener — the Owls remained winless entering the week at 0-8-0 — Lebanon played seven straight games against high-caliber competition.
It started with three straight against D-II frontrunners Dover (6-1-1), Merrimack (8-0-0) and Spaulding (7-0-1), continued with a pair of tight battles against Keene (3-2-3) and a nonleague, holiday-tournament tussle with Belmont (Mass.) and wrapped up a date with 6-1-1 Bedford on Jan. 5.
The results? A seven-game losing streak, the longest drought under fourth-year coach Gary Smith.
Yet the Raiders remain optimistic as they enter the stretch run of the season. Last year, Lebanon started 1-7-1 before winning eight of its last 12. That was good enough to send it to the postseason for the first time since a run to the semifinals in 2009.
With nine of the Raiders’ final 11 games coming against sub-.500 teams, the Raiders hope they can put together a similar run. They won’t have to face any of the aforementioned frontrunners again — at least not until the playoffs — thanks to realignment that increased the number of D-II teams from 12 to 16.
“We’re not taking anything for granted, because this is hockey and any team can beat any team on a given day,” said Smith prior to a recent practice at Campion Rink. “But it will be nice to play teams that are a little closer to us in the standings down the stretch.”
Leading scorers Jake Davis (15 goals, 20 assists — 35 points in 2011-12), Josh Huett (17-13—30) and Zach Pollard (12-13—25) were among six athletic seniors graduating from last year’s team, five of whom are playing college athletics at either varsity or club level this year. Three-year starting goalie Nick Dube and top defenders Adam Haidari and Cody Pelletier were also in the mix of departures.
That left the Raiders with just three returning players who scored at least one goal last season, a new starting goalie in junior Joe Grout and just two returning defenders in junior Dylan Gaudette and sophomore Tanner Simms. Lebanon’s inexperience has been most evident on the defensive end, where its 4.2 goals allowed per game is a full goal higher than last year.
With senior Ryan White (9-4—13) and sophomore Ryan Damren (4-7—11) leading the way, the Raiders’ 2.5 goals per game is only down slightly from last year’s 2.7 average.
“We have a lot of new guys playing at every position, but I think it stands out a little bit more on defense as the younger guys adjust to the next level of play,” Smith said. “If you get burned on the front line, you still have the whole defense and the goalie behind you. If you get beat on defense, sometimes it’s a 3-on-2 or a 2-on-1 and the only guy behind you is the goalie.
“But we’ve got a lot of new guys who have been doing a good job making those adjustments, and they’re only going to get better. Guys like (freshmen) Nate Kriplin and Greg Surgenor have been stepping up.”
While admitting the seven-game losing streak tested their competitive chutzpah, the Raider veterans expect fruits from the lessons learned. Five of the losses were by two goals or fewer.
“I mean, that was a really hard schedule, and we were in a lot of those games,” said White. “A lot of times, it would just be one stretch where we’d have a couple mistakes in a short amount of time, give up two quick goals and that would be the difference.”
Senior center Donncha Coyle said the team’s returners prepared themselves mentally for a roster they knew would be peppered with unseasoned teammates.
“We were pretty much prepared for what we’re going through now,” Coyle said. “We knew it would be a case of rebuilding on defense. We were going to have to do a good job being there to help the younger kids, and there were going to be some struggles. We’ve been scoring plenty of goals; now it’s just time to start cutting down on some of the errors like neutral-zone turnovers. It’ll be interesting to see how our season plays out, because we’re getting better.”
The Raiders showed flashes of brilliance in Saturday’s 4-3 loss to Alvirne, rallying from a 3-0 first-period hole with a three-goal burst during an extended 5-on-3 advantage in the second stanza.
As exciting as the rally was, it required too much energy, Smith said. He’d rather not be in the hole to begin with.
“It was great to battle back, but we were gassed from playing catchup over and over again,” the coach said. “We’re a young team and we’ve got to play 45 minutes. We’ve got to learn that a lot of games are decided in the first period.”
Jared Pendak can be reached at email@example.com or 603-727-3306.