East Xtra: Returnees, additions boost Central Catholic hockey
Central Catholic's Chris McCambridge carries the puck up ice against North Allegheny during the Vikings' season opener.
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The Central Catholic hockey team may have already lost two games early this season, but the Vikings showed they could compete with the PIHL's best in those defeats.
The Vikings' season opener came against PIHL Class AAA favorite North Allegheny. The Tigers were coming off a championship at the St. Margaret's Foundation Fall Faceoff preseason tournament, where they beat defending Penguins Cup Class AAA champion Bethel Park and one of the other favorites to win the title this season, Canon-McMillan.
But through two periods of play, the Tigers and Vikings were even at 1. After the Tigers scored the opening goal, Central's Alex Houser answered with the tying tally in the second period. Houser had been playing with an amateur team before this season, but decided to play for the Vikings after skating with the team during the summer.
"Adding him to our team has really helped our offensive depth," Central Catholic coach Bill Connelly said.
Houser leads the team with seven points through four games.
North Allegheny would score two goals late in the third period, the last an empty netter in the final minute, to pull out the win. But of the Tigers' first four victories, this was the closest and North Allegheny owns wins against other top teams Bethel Park, Upper St. Clair and Mt. Lebanon.
"I think it surprised a lot of people with how we played," Connelly said. "For a first game, it was as intense and physical a game as I can remember."
Central Catholic (2-2) rebounded with a 7-1 victory against Hempfield Area, then dominated most of the game against Mt. Lebanon, outshooting the Blue Devils 44-22. The Vikings only got three shots past Mt. Lebanon goaltender Clay Wyda, however, while the Blue Devils netted four goals for the win.
"We dominated play against Mt. Lebanon. I think we outshot them by more than 20," said senior captain Neil Carleton. "We just didn't finish our chances and they did. We have to work on that."
One reason for optimism going forward for the Vikings is the return of Carleton, the team's top defenseman. Carleton played only four games last season, before suffering a concussion in December.
Carleton sat out the rest of the season, having to watch from the bench as his team won the section title before losing in the playoffs to Norwin. He said that time off made him hungry to play this season.
"I was really excited to play this season," Carleton said. "The first couple of games back, they went well, but in the back of my mind I was still nervous about what would happen if I would get another [concussion]. Now I think I'm back to playing like I always have."
In addition to being good on the defensive end of the ice, Carleton has tallied six points (two goals, four assists) through the season's first four games.
"I really feel he is one of the best defensemen in the state," Connelly said of Carleton.
Carleton isn't the only Vikings' player returning from a concussion. Jesse Yeckel, a talented forward, missed most of last season with multiple injuries, including an injury to his kneecap and a concussion. Yeckel scored three goals and three assists in the team's first four games, including a two-goal game in the Vikings' 5-1 victory against winless Penn-Trafford Monday night.
While Yeckel and Carleton have rebounded from their concussions, the Vikings have had two more players suffer concussions early this season. Head injuries are currently a hot topic in the sports world, and Connolly is concerned about how frequently his team is getting them.
"It's tough because we ask our kids to play a physical style, but these injuries are alarming," Connelly said.
If the Vikings can stay healthy and with consistent effort, Carleton believes the team can reach its ultimate goal.
"We won the section [title] last year for, I think, the first time in eight or nine years, so winning the section again is the first goal," Carleton said. "But also, I think all the guys want to play at Consol. We want to play in that Penguins Cup championship game."
First Published November 15, 2012 12:00 am