Undefeated Burrell hockey getting star treatment
When Burrell hockey restarted its program three years ago, many of the players who are making a major impact in this season’s 15-0 start were freshmen and sophomores learning on the fly about what it took to compete at the PIHL varsity level.
The Bucs have been building toward this season, where young talent has turned into depth at every position. That depth will be on display Sunday at the PIHL All-Star games.
Burrell had six players — forwards Tyler Stewart, Dylan Zelonka and Jonas Sopko, defensemen Nathan Smith and Bryce Schueler and goaltender Drew Burkett — selected to play in the PIHL Division II All-Star game at noon at RMU Island Sports Center.
Stewart, the league’s leading scorer, is unable to attend the game. Smith, Burkett and Zelonka will be on Team Gold, and Schueler and Spoko are on Team Blue. Burrell coach Max Rickard will coach Team Blue.
Burkett, Zelonka, Schueler, Stewart and Smith have been selected for the All-Star game before, and Rickard coached in the game last year.
“This is for the boys to play and have some fun,” Rickard said. “A lot of these kids know each other from playing on travel teams. It’s about going out there and doing some fun stuff like making some passes that you wouldn’t make in a regular-season game. It’s going to be fun to watch all of this top talent out there.”
Alle-Kiski Valley schools will have players represented in the Class A and AA games as well.
Shane Miller (Deer Lakes); Mac Johnson and Ricky Downey (Fox Chapel); Alex Colflesh, Slade Ohl and David Gaspersic (Freeport); and Collin Haugh (Kiski Area) will participate in the Class A game. A.J. Adamski (Plum) is in the Class AA game. Reed Troutman (Fox Chapel) was selected to play in the Class A game but is unable to attend.
Even though Stewart won’t participate Sunday, he gave everyone a reminder of how dynamic he is by scoring eight goals in Burrell’s 10-2 win over Bishop Canevin on Monday. Eight goals was a personal best for a high school game for Stewart, but he said he had a 13-goal game in youth hockey.
Since Stewart’s Esmark Stars travel club teammate Gio Palombo joined Burrell in late November, the pair have played together and clicked well. Palombo assisted on five of Stewart’s eight goals Monday.
Stewart has 57 points and is well on his way to winning a second consecutive scoring title.
“Tyler showed again in the Bishop Canevin game that he can control both sides of the ice,” Rickard said. “I hate comparing kids in high school to players in higher levels, but he’s a (Sidney) Crosby-esque player where he makes everyone on the ice a better player. He reads and reacts very well and sees the ice better than anyone out there.”
Sopko is in his first season with Burrell and he has found chemistry on a line with Zelonka, a senior. Zelonka is second on the team with 44 points and third in Division II. Sopko has 27 points.
Smith and Schueler anchor the blue line but also contribute offensively. Schueler has 16 points and Smith has 13 on a team that has scored 112 goals and allowed only 38.
“Nate is really good at breaking the puck out,” Burkett said. “He’s a great defensive guy. Bryce is more of an offensive defenseman.”
Burkett returns to the All-Star game after playing in it two years ago. He has a 14-0 record with a .903 save percentage, which ranks third among goalies who have faced more than 300 shots, and a 2.82 goals against average.
“Drew is a pretty big kid, and he’s very athletic,” Schueler said. “He likes to come out and play the puck. He has an assist this year. He’s very mobile and you can trust him to come out and play the puck when you need him to do so.”
Burrell has been dominant most of the season, with 11 of its 15 wins by three or more goals, but it received scares in consecutive games against Ringgold and Central Valley.
The Bucs won both games, 7-6, but trailed in both, including 4-0 against Ringgold in the first period. Stewart said no one on the team has been on an undefeated team this late in the season and those games were reminders that if they are off their game that goal can disappear.
“We’re all teenagers and we’re winning and when everything is going our way, so I think we started to think we were invincible,” Stewart said. “We did not come out and play our game and Ringgold caught us in the first period. We kind of all got a wakeup call that we needed to play our game.”
Burrell forged its way into the top seed in the Division II playoffs and is a favorite to win its first Penguins Cup title. The Bucs are still fine-tuning things to be even stronger before the postseason starts.
“I believe we have a very good chance to win the Pens Cup,” Schueler said, “but we have to continue to work on stuff that we aren’t very good at right now in practice and just get better.”
Jerin Steele is a freelance writer.