South Xtra: Big Macs expecting a strong season on the ice

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The 2012-13 PIHL season didn't end the way J.D. Oddi and his Canon-McMillan High School teammates had dreamed it would.

In the Penguins Cup quarterfinals, the Big Macs took No. 2-seeded North Allegheny into overtime and Oddi had a chance to end the game when he stepped to center ice to take a penalty shot against the Tigers' goaltender, Bradford Thornburgh.

But the all-star forward was stopped by Thorburgh, and 16 seconds later, Cody Black scored the game-winner for the Tigers. North Allegheny went on to win both the Penguins Cup and state championships.

"We felt we should have won that game, both in regulation time, where we thought we dominated a lot of the play, and then in overtime," Oddi said. "We knew we could win. Now we're using it as fuel. Not really revenge, but just something that motivates us to give it our all on every shift.

"It's fueling us to work our hardest every game."

Despite losing three of their top four scorers -- Anthony Tonkovich, Carmen Dalesandro and Blair Oldaker -- from last season's team, the Big Macs are off to a 3-2 start and entered this week leading Class AAA with six goals per game.

The Big Macs are even playing a more defensive style under first-year coach Terry Virtue and still lighting the lamp more consistently than any other team.

"Last year under Yuri [Krivokhija], we were more of a run-and-gun offense," Oddi said. "This year, we're concentrating on not allowing as many pucks in our net."

The key to the offense is depth. Oddi leads the team with eight goals, but his line isn't even the most prolific on the team. Sophomore Lucas Lavella, junior Austin Tonkovich and freshman Jack Clendaniel have combined for 11 goals and 31 points this season.

"Austin and Luc can be really tough to keep up with because they're so talented, but Jack Clendaniel, from the first practice, has stepped right in and stayed with them," Oddi said.

All told, seven different players have at least five points through five games for Canon-McMillan and 11 different players have lit the lamp. The Big Macs are scheduled to play Seneca Valley (3-2) at 8:50 tonight at the Iceoplex at Southpointe in Cecil.

"We have three really strong lines we can run out there," Virtue said.

Virtue played professional hockey for 17 years, a short period of which came in the NHL with the New York Rangers and Boston Bruins. As a coach, he spent the 2010-12 seasons as an associate head coach with the Owen Sound Attack of the Ontario Hockey League and three seasons prior to that as an associate head coach of the Tri-City Americans of the Western Hockey League.

As his players are trying to learn the system he is installing, he is also learning how to coach a high school hockey team for the first time.

"It's a work in progress," Virtue said. "I'm used to coaching 16- to 20-year-old elite, best-in-the-world players, so there's a learning curve for me also. I have to make sure I'm not expecting too much.

"But this is a 200-foot game and I want all my guys playing the entire length of the ice. We have the offense, now they need to come back and help in the defensive zone."

Oddi, the team's captain, has bought into the system and believes that when the team has stuck to it, the Big Macs have been very successful.

The key will be to continue to progress in Virtue's system throughout the season and be clicking on all cylinders when the playoffs roll around in March.

"We haven't played too badly," Oddi said. "There's not four or five dominant teams this year like there usually is. Anyone can beat anyone on any given night.

"So the key is just to play your best at the end of the season and get to the playoffs, where we know from experience that anything can happen in those last four games."

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