Winning ways continue for Armstrong hockey
Year 2 of Armstrong hockey has picked up where the first season left off.
The Riverhawks are 4-1 after finishing 17-6-1 last season and making an appearance in the PIHL Class AA semifinals in what was the first year of the Kittanning/Ford City merger.
Armstrong coach Doug Anthony likes the way his team has played in the first month of a PIHL season that has brought sweeping changes, including realignment and moving the opening night from late October to the first full week of October.
“We’re definitely way ahead of where we were last year at this point. Our system has been in place, and we were pretty young last year,” Anthony said. “A lot of our kids have matured, and they worked hard in the offseason. It was definitely a much easier transition to the season than last year.”
The Riverhawks gained a reputation as a high-scoring team last season, and they return senior Christian Miller, who led Class AA with 46 goals in 2013-14. Miller is second in Class AA this season with 16 points (nine goals, seven assists). Fellow senior Josh Oliver is tied for fourth with 12 points (eight goals, four assists).
That start already has led Anthony to shuffle his lines in an effort to get both on the ice more frequently.
“We’ve moved to a two-center system with them,” Anthony said. “We were running Christian on a regular line, but he was only on the ice every third shift. We need both him and Josh out there more often.”
The team returns depth at every position. Jacob Snyder, Nick Long, Coby Toy, Luke Gross and David Contrael logged big minutes last year up front, while the blue line has returnees Donovan Wichowski and Zane Wichowski among others.
Taylor Smouse returns for his second year as the full-time starter in net. Armstrong is getting contributions from freshman forward Zach Kutch and freshman defenseman Jacob Gross, as well.
“Taylor’s been consistent and solid for us,” Anthony said. “Jake Gross has been playing exceptionally for us, and he’s very patient with the puck for a ninth grader. Kutch is another one who’s been exceptional, and he has great speed. Those two are really our future, and I hope as the season goes on, they don’t have to look to the older players as much and really use their own talents.”
Anthony said the key to the strong start has been a better commitment to working the defensive end of the ice, and that has led to wins over Fox Chapel, Norwin, Latrobe and Plum with the lone loss against Hampton.
Two of those teams — Fox Chapel and Norwin — dropped from Class AAA to Class AA this year as part of the PIHL’s realignment.
Under the league’s new system, a school’s enrollment is only one of the factors in its classification. The success of a program is also will be factored in, which will force stronger programs to move up a class while allowing struggling programs to drop, if they choose, in a modified promotion/relegation system.
“I think the PIHL is really doing a good thing to make it more competitive,” Anthony said. “I love (playing new teams). When I was in school at Ford City and Armstrong Central, we had big rivalries with Fox Chapel and Shaler. We were always excited to play those teams, and it’s nice to see them in our league.”
Not all of the league’s changes have been positive, Anthony said. The earlier start to the season impacted teams’ readiness for play, but fortunately for Armstrong, their veteran group has been able to successfully battle through.
“It’s kind of a shame we started three weeks early. Three less weeks of practice has hurt everybody, and you can see it on the ice,” Anthony said. “I wish they’d have started us three weeks later.”