Jim Brown had heard the horror stories before taking the Baldwin High School hockey head coaching position.
“I heard [Baldwin] wasn’t ‘referee friendly,’” Brown said. “I have friends who are referees so I heard the stories. But those referees love officiating my team’s games, because I put an end to any problems.”
Brown has put an end to Baldwin’s penalty problems, and in the process, helped Baldwin rise to the top of the Open Class standings.
The Highlanders have won nine consecutive games and their 12-1 record is the best in the league.
“When [assistant coach] Craig Albert and I came in, we brought in a disciplined structure of hockey,” said Brown, who has coached junior hockey, high school hockey and USA hockey in his 16 years behind the bench. “It’s a simple philosophy: I coach, players play and referees ref. The players bought into it immediately.”
In the 2010-11 and 2011-12 seasons, the Highlanders were penalized 1,113 minutes over 38 games, an average of 29.2 minutes per game. The Highlanders improved a lot last season, with only 245 penalty minutes in 20 games and have continued to keep that number relatively low in Brown’s first season, averaging just 15.1 penalty minutes per game.
The extra time at even strength or on the power play has helped Baldwin’s offense become one of the most dynamic in the PIHL in recent memory.
The Highlanders have scored a PIHL-leading 126 goals in 13 games (9.69 goals per game). To put that in perspective, Greensburg Salem averaged 9.5 goals per game last season in the Open Class, the highest mark in any classification in the PIHL since Chartiers Valley averaged 9.76 goals during the 2004-05 season.
It hasn’t just been one or two players who have carried the load for Baldwin. The Highlanders have 11 players with at least six goals and 10 who have at least 15 points.
Leading the way is the team’s top line of senior Tony Alaimo, junior Brian Dee and sophomore Max Milan. Alaimo is the team leader in goals (17) and assists (24), Milan is fourth in points with 29 (13 goals, 16 assists) and Dee is fifth in points with 28 (16 goals, 12 assists).
That trio showed its dominance last week in a win against Altoona, when each player had at least a hat trick, combining for 10 goals in a 13-8 win.
“That line has been a machine this year,” Brown said. “They’re pretty much unstoppable. In fact, I’ll go as far as to say that no team in this league can stop them.”
“They’re very difficult to match up with,” Indiana coach Dom Glavach said. “They come at you in waves.”
As Glavach alluded to, Baldwin also has plenty of talent beyond its top line. Junior Kody Becker has played in only nine of the team’s games, but is third with 30 points (14 goals, 16 assists). Sophomore Mark O’Hanlon is second on the team with 31 points, playing mostly on a line with two underclassmen in Dom Carrlino (15 points) and Paul Knerr (15 points).
Even the defensive players are jumping in, as sophomore Kenny Dee, Brian’s brother, has 12 goals and 11 assists while Ryan Duran has 15 points.
Baldwin has also gotten solid goaltending play from Matt Yauch, who has a league-leading 11 wins to go with a 2.96 goals-against average and .826 save percentage.
Despite his Open Class win total, Yauch was not selected to the PIHL Open Class All-Star game next month. In fact, no one except Alaimo was selected from Baldwin to play for the Northeast Conference team (Becker is an alternate).
Indiana (five), Hempfield (four), Carrick (three), Greensburg Salem (two) and Ringgold (two) all have more representatives on the Northeast team than the Highlanders, despite all looking up at Baldwin in the standings.
If Baldwin needed any extra motivation as it comes down the stretch toward the playoffs, it now has the ammunition.
“It’s a whole lot of fuel to use,” Brown said. “I used it in my motivational speech before our game [Jan. 13 against Altoona], right after I found out.”
The Highlanders return to the ice tonight at 9:10 p.m. against Keystone Oaks (3-10) at the Mt. Lebanon Recreation Center.