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Preview: As they Arrive in Blaine, Veterans Look to Lead Knights to New Heights

Photo: Jessica Kovalcin

The Knights opened their regular season this past weekend with a pair of contests against the Johnstown Tomahawks. Neither game went the way the team wanted, but the experience each game provided will serve the team well moving forward.

According to eliteprospects.com, Wilkes-Barre/Scranton’s roster is the youngest the NAHL when considering the average age of their players. Of the 25 that make up their team, six made their junior hockey debut last weekend. Another six have played in 20 games or less, meaning all would be “rookies,” by NHL standards. In stark contrast, the other half of the roster has combined to play a staggering 947 games in junior hockey. Many of these veterans nearly tasted Robertson Cup glory and few months ago. They’re eager to not only go back, but to bring their young teammates with them.

“You want to be a leader,” said defenseman Luke Robinson. “You want to fill the leadership role. It’s definitely an adjustment period. There’s some younger players with us this year. I can relate to what they’re going through. In practice if they have a bad pass or if they’re nervous going into a drill, I can kind of just talk to them and say ‘Hey, I was in the same situation and I was nervous doing that also. Just work through it and it’ll work out. There’s a reason you’re here-you’re talented enough to be here.’”

Robinson was third on the blue line last year, picking up a goal and 16 points in his first full season with the Knights.

”I want to be some one they can look to. I want to make sure that when I’m on the ice, I’m doing the right things so they pick up on that and realize how to be successful at this league, or how to work your way up the lineup, you have to be doing these things. Working out, stretching, warming up, taking shots after practice, things like that. I want to be that  leader, someone they can look up to, just being a good example.”

Robinson is joined by fellow right-hander Shay Donovan on the blue line, whose resume includes 105 games played in the NAHL.

“Yea I plan on it,” said Donovan on stepping into the role of a leader. “I plan on setting a tone early on, leading the young guys, showing them how you prepare for the season, how you handle yourself in the weight room, on the ice, however that may be. The older you get, the more games you have played and the more that becomes important.”

Lincoln Hatten is a 2000-born forward with more than just a powerful build. In his first season, the forward would join fellow rookies in becoming a catalyst for last year’s postseason run. The Texas-native scored a goal in the semi-finals against the eventual Robertson Cup Champion Shreveport Mudbugs.

“We just have to stay focused throughout the season,” said Hatten. “The grind never stops. You’re going, going, and going, but I think when we got to the Robertson Cup last year, we kind of took our eye off the prize a bit. We sat back that first game we were there and they brought it to us. We just gotta keep our foot on the gas pedal, keep moving forward, keep doing what we’re doing and get there. I think this year, being there last year, all the vets have thoughts in their heads about going back, things to differently so we help ensure that we can get it done.”

As far as the advice he offers to those following in his footsteps, Hatten refers them to his coach’s message for guidance.

“I tell them to listen to TK on the ice,” he said. “He just keeps repeating to stay mentally tough. It’s a mental sport. If you let a kid get in your head, like if you’re on the boards as a winger you can’t the puck out, and if you let that start affecting you, you’re not going to get the job done. Just staying mentally strong, just working hard every shift, making sure you get the fine details-making sure you get every little thing done right, that’s how you become successful.”

On a similar note, Robinson stressed that harnessing adrenaline and the mental aspect of the game is crucial to a fast start.

“Honestly, I think it’s feeling those nerves and use that to your advantage on your first shift,” said Robinson. “Just feel nervous, go out and move your legs, get a hit, get a shot on goal, just kamikaze it. Just know there’s a reason you’re here, you should be confident in that, and go play your game.”

“I think the biggest thing, looking around the division, not knowing what everyone else has coming back, but I’d say experience is going to be our biggest asset,” said Donovan. “Just having four guys who are veterans back, that makes a huge difference in bringing the young guys along. It helps everyone grow up really fast. Just heading into games, everyone is so much more experienced. I think we have a lot of skill as well, especially from our draft picks. We added some size and skill, some guys who can really skate with it. I think something that we’re really going to have to work on a bit is the physical aspect of the game. It’s something hopefully us older guys can show the younger guys. TK always stresses clearing the front of the net, being tough in our own end, getting pucks up-we have some really good forwards to go along with it.”

“I’m excited to see what we have in store,” said Hatten. “Practices have been great, high-tempo, a lot of body, and just a lot of grit down in the corners. We’ve put a lot of hard work in.”

“I’m gonna bring the same style, focus more on scoring  goals this year, and getting in a few opponents’ heads,” said Gabe Temple, the team’s newest captain. “I just want to help lead the team back to the Robertson Cup playoffs and hopefully win this year,”

KNIGHTS BLAINE ROSTER:

Forwards:
#9 Zak Currie, RHF
#10 Beck Moore, LHF
#11 Jake Fuss, LHF
#15 Lincoln Hatten, RHF
#16 Sacha Guillemain, RHF
#17 Anthony Starzi, RHF
#19 Jason Stachelbeck, RHF
#22 Gabe Temple, RHF
#23 Mathew Kahra, LHF
#24 Tyler Nielsen, RHF
#25 Brett Postula, LHF
#26 Jacob Badal, LHF
#28 Jeffrey Bertrand, RHF
#29 Will Otwell, RHF

Defensemen:
#2 Greg Japchen, LHD
#4 Davis Pennington, LHD
#8 Blake Krkyska, LHD
#12 Evan Orr, LHD
#14 Joey Verkerke, RHD
#20 Shay Donovan, RHD
#21 Jordan Strand, RHD
#27 Luke Robinson, RHD

Goalies:
#1 Samuel Vyletelka
#35 Zach Stejskal

  • Notes:
    “I think our speed,” said Donvan of what he felt is his team’s most impressive skillset. “To make this team-I think everyone skates really well. I think as a d-corps we skate really well, and that’ll help transition the play up to the forwards. If we can play fast in transition, we should be the fastest team in our division. I think that’d really help us and that’s something that TK and Whitey really look for.”

 

  • “Our ability to transition,” Robinson agreed. “Being able to join the rush, to make it instead of a 3-on-2, a 4-on-2 and just have the confidence that we can even get back if we have a turnover and cover for d. We have guys who are very good skaters on the blue line. If we can beat that first forechecker as a defenseman and move it to an open guy, head-man the puck, we can hopefully join the rush.”

 

  • The Knights most experienced tender from last year is also one of their youngest, as Alaskan standout Jeff Bertrand returns in 2018-19. The future Nittany Lion cut his teeth in the NAHL in the best possible way, playing in a handful of regular season games before joining the roster for the entirety of the 2018 playoffs. The big right-handed shot scored his first goal with the Knights against the then-named Philadelphia Rebels en route to the Knights sweep of one of their arch rivals last postseason. This year, Bertrand scored the Knights first goal of the season on their first shot in their home opener Friday.

 

  • Jacob Badal is one of the few players younger than Bertrand on the Knights roster this season. He scored his first goal of junior hockey on Saturday night against Johnstown on a sharp-angle snipe.

 

  • Three graduates of the Knights EHL roster combined for a goal on Friday. Anthony Starzi and Jake Fuss fed Tyler Nielsen for his first goal of the season.

 

  • Zach Stejskal, the Knights most recent first-round pick, comes to the team following a year in the USHL with the Central Illinois Flying Aces. From the moment he steps on the ice, Stejskal can’t be missed. The hulking netminder stands at 6-5 but moved with the quickness of a smaller goalie at Knights main camp. The team is excited about the Minnesota-native’s arrival.

 

  • “He just has a great mentality in net. It’s the type of mentality you need in net to say ‘Screw this I’m not getting scored on’ type of mentality. He’s super calm-no freak outs-he’s always supportive of his guys, and he’s got some really good experience to go along with that.”

EHL Preview: Knights Look to Keep Rolling with Busy Week Ahead

Photo Credit: Jessica Kovalcin

With three games on the docket this week, the Knights are focused on keeping their hot streak alive and well as the season winds into February. Winners of nine of their last 10 games, Wilkes-Barre/Scranton is the current occupant of third place in the Mid-Atlantic division and fifth place in the South Conference. The top six teams in each of the EHL’s two conferences advance to the playoffs scheduled for just over a month away.

“We have to keep playing with emotion,” said Knights head coach Josh Fusco. “I think the biggest thing is the compete level. We’re coming off a good weekend.”

In a two-game series with the New York Bobcats Royals, the Knights picked up a pair of shutouts and four points to keep pace in a competitive South.

“The biggest thing was the compete level-knowing what was at stake all the time with the standings being real tight, playoff implications on the line every day,” said Fusco. “We played good hockey in all three zones both days. I think the backcheck was the best it’s ever been. Our penalty kill was phenomenal-our power play was much, much better so I think we can see the progress there.”

The Knights defense held the Bobcats Royals to just 26 shots on goal, while increasing their season shutout total from one to three. The team was also a perfect 7-for-7 on the penalty kill while registering two shorthanded goals.

“Overall we’ve been stressing to get the puck to the net, to shoot the puck,” said Fusco of his team’s efforts on the other end of the ice. “I thought our defense did a tremendous job of doing that. Our forwards did a tremendous job getting there, generating rebounds and making chances happen. The biggest thing at the end of the day was that we were able to capitalize on their breakdowns and miscues.”

Scoring Leaders Over Last 10 Games
Player G A TP
#11 Jake Fuss, F 9 10 19
#27 Nate Chuckran, F 4 6 10
#14 Tyler Watungwa, F 6 3 9
#2 William Case, D 1 7 8
#10 Nick Peck, D 4 4 8
#18 Alex Morawski, F 3 5 8
#20 Austin Weber, F 2 6 8

The Knights are just three points behind this weekend’s opponent, New York Applecore for the fourth seed in the South, but will start competition this week with a meeting against the owners of the EHL’s best record, the Philadelphia Revolution.

“We’re excited for this Revolution game,” said Fusco. “It’s another chance for two big points. That’s what we’re stressing in practice, when we’re on the bus, and the second we step foot into their building. It’s a mentality of ‘We’re here to do a job and two points is our paycheck today.'”

The Knights are 0-4 against the Revolution this season, but haven’t met since mid-October. Philadelphia enters play today with an 8-2 record over their previous 10 contests, second only in the league to the Knights 9-1 mark in that stretch. The Revolution boast the EHL’s top-ranked offense (4.94 GPG) and second-ranked defense (1.97 GAPG).

“It’ll be a good gauge of where we’re at against a team like that,” said Fusco. “They’re on a roll, they have the league’s highest winning percentage, and they have one of the league’s most experienced rosters. We feel like we owe them. We played pretty well the last time we faced them, but we had a few too many breakdowns. Now we have a very different lineup.  The way we’re competing across the board lately, there’s no reason in my mind that we can’t beat them, so we need to go out there and get it done.  I have 100% faith in my team.”

Goaltending Last 10 Games
Player Record Minutes GAA Saves Shots Save % Shutouts
#30 Thomas Walker 5-0-0 304:34 1.97 133 143 .930 1
#31 Jared Stahel 4-1-0 257:00 1.40 95 101 .941 2
Totals 9-1-0 561:34 1.71 228 244 .934 3

Indeed, the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton roster has gone through several renovations in the time elapsed. It began with Nate Chuckran coming over from the Philadelphia Junior Flyers in the middle of November.

“With Chuck-what more can you say?,” asked his head coach. “He’s hungry, he’s a competitor, he gives 110%. He’s constantly going-the kid’s got a good motor on him.”

The EHL veteran added much-needed experience to the roster while exerting his physical style of play on the ice to the tune of 17 points in the 20 games since his acquisition. His six assists on the power play has helped the Knights man-advantage catapult itself to the league’s fourth-highest success rate at 21.7%.

Unfortunately for Wilkes-Barre/Scranton, they will not have him for today’s contest against the Revolution due to a one-game suspension being served for butt-ending. Despite that, Fusco looks forward to leaning heavily on his veteran forward.

“He’s been a great addition,” he said. “He’s got a lot on the line being a ’97. His play’s been showing it and his leadership has been showing it. There’s not a negative bone in his body. He’s going to be a guy who carries a big piece of the workload with the end of the season on the way.”

William Case was added to the blue line just prior to the beginning of December. The 6-4 defender has been an asset to the Knights in his own end as well as on the attack.

“Will Case brings steady, rock-solid defense on the back end,” said Fusco. “He’s starting to find his groove on offense. He’s getting more confident with the puck. He’s making plays, getting pucks going north. He’s stepped up to the plate-the expectations are at a higher level now. ”

Special Teams
Last 10 Games
PP 12 for 37 32.43%
PK 33 for 38 86.84%
Shorties 5 for, 1 Against

Like Chuckran, Case’s impact can be seen on the power play, where he has recorded four of his nine assists since joining the team. His ten total points rank him third on the Knights blue line in production despite having only played in just over a dozen games.

“He’s the go-to-guy on the power play,” said Fusco. “He’s finding ways to get the pucks through. He’s scored, but more importantly he gets the puck somewhere around the cage where we’re driving home rebounds or keeping pucks hemmed in the zone. He’s a great locker room guy. I think he’s been a great addition in that aspect. He’s a ’99, but he plays like he’s a veteran hockey player.”

The Knights next addition was one that Fusco admits he wasn’t overly familiar with initially, with forward Tyler Watungwa. The Ottawa native had spent previous seasons in the EHL before coming over to the Knights from the Northern Ontario Junior Hockey League in mid-December.

“I’ll be honest and say I didn’t know a whole lot about Tyler before we picked him up,” said Fusco. “One of the reasons we added him was because he was a ’97. He was a veteran of junior hockey and we needed that in the lineup. He’s got a bigger body, he likes to muck and grind, he’s kind of a meat and potatoes guy, but he’s brought the scoring touch as well.”

The beginning of Watungwa’s Knights career couldn’t have gone much better, as he scored in six of his first seven games, recording two game-winning goals in that span. The gritty forward has been an asset to special teams as well, especially on the penalty kill.

“Tyler is probably one of the hardest working guys because he doesn’t stop, said Fusco. “He’s constantly back-checking and constantly playing the position the correct way. He moves the puck, he’s got silky hands-ever since he’s been here he’s been finding the back of the net.”

Mick Heneghan has has bounced his way back and forth between the Knights NAHL and EHL roster, but when with the latter, he’s produced well.

“Heneghan’s received some time with us from the NAHL team, said Fusco. “When he comes in for us, he steps in and fills a role. He’s a great addition. Obviously he’s had a lot of NAHL experience and he has that talent in his game. He’s another guy who’s good with the puck, plays up on the rush, and generates plays.”

In three games in January, Heneghan’s notched a game-winning goal and two assists and has played with a physical edge to accompany his puck-moving ability from the blue line.

“A guy like that who’s willing to come and help out the affiliate team, that’s big,” said Fusco. “It’s not always easy. He’s come in, worked hard and has a great attitude. He brings a lot to the table. He’s been positive the whole time. I commend him for that.”

The final acquisition and newest Knight is forward Bryan Whelan. Picked up from the Bobcats Royals in the middle of January, Fusco is happy to no longer have to scheme against a former nemesis.

“I’ve gotten to know Bryan coaching against him last year and this year,” he said. “He’s another ’97 we brought in. I compare him to a Jake Fuss and Anthony Starzi. He’s speedy, he’s got hands, he can shoot, and he’s got a knack for sticking with the puck.”

The right-handed forward came to the Knights with an already impressive 15 goals and eight assists in 29 games on the season. He’s scored in every game he’s worn a Knights sweater, picking up an additional four goals and two assists in six contests.

“He and Jake Fuss are tic-tac-toe out there,” said Fusco. “I’ve been talking to college coaches. I say ‘I know you’ve been looking at Fuss and Starzi. Well Bryan’s the same way.’ He’s a similar guy. With him, you’re bringing that speed and go-to-guy factor to the lineup. He’s another one that doesn’t stop. He’s been a welcome addition. His junior career is winding down and he wants to win a championship. That’s the mentality we want around here.”

After taking on the Revolution today in what is sure to be a measuring-stick contest, the Knights will head to back to New York to take on the team just ahead of them in the South Conference playoff seeding. Entering Wednesday, the New York Applecore are three points ahead of the Knights in the standings, good for fourth-place in the South Conference.

“Like I said, we know what’s at stake,” said Fusco. “For awhile now we’ve figured that this Applecore weekend would be a telltale sign of what’s going to shake out here at the end of the regular season. We can’t take our foot off the pedal against them. They’re a good team.”

In two prior meetings with New York, the Knights are 2-0, having won both games played between the pair at the Revolution Ice Centre in the first few weeks of the season. Still, Wilkes-Barre/Scranton won’t be content to rest on the laurels of their previous results.

Like the Revolution, the Applecore are 8-2 over their past 10 games. Like the Knights, New York will have one contest to play this week before meeting Wilkes-Barre/Scranton. After traveling to Connecticut to take on the Oilers Friday, Applecore will host the pivotal two-game Saturday-Sunday series that could play a large role in deciding the first round of match-ups in the South Conference with playoffs set to begin in March.

With their game as good as it’s been the Knights will be ready for the fights ahead.

Today’s 2:00 pm EST contest against the Philadelphia Revolution will be broadcast on hockeytv.com. You can also follow the Knights EHL twitter at @WBSKnightsEHL and visit www.easternhockeyleague.org for in-game updates. Stay tuned to www.wbsknights.com for all the latest happenings in the Knights kingdom!

NAHL Weekend Preview: Knights Set for Battle with Old Foe with New Name

Photo Credit: Steve Yakimowicz
Written by Nicholas Marotta
This weekend the return to NAHL eastern division play promises to be an early measuring stick, as the 5-1 Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Kinghts take on the 6-0 Philadelphia Rebels.  These two teams find themselves locked in a battle for divisional placing, separated by just two points, while also featuring a promising battle of a high-powered offense versus an impenetrable defense.
The Knights boast many impressive scorers.  The team has three members hovering around a point per game average.  Forward Jack Olmstead leads the offense with seven total points, but is followed closely by fellow forwards Curtis Carlson and Matt Kidney with six apiece.
The Knights, currently tied for the fifth-best offense in the NAHL, average just north of three goals per game,  and score about 10% of the time on the power play.  The forecheck has been bolstered by a strong blend of veteran leadership and a stellar rookie class.  The team is looking to avenge their previous playoff losses, as the Rebels have eliminated them in each of the last two years in the Robertson Cup playoffs.
The Rebels, in contrast to the Knights offense, have allowed just over one goal a game on average.  While the Rebels’ point leaders have less than that of the Knights’, their defense has been stellar in the early season.  Goalie Ryan Keane has only allowed an average of one goal a game, and has a 96% save rate.  His fellow goalies Eli Billing and Jack Leavy have each allowed just a goal and a half all season over the same amount of minutes.
The Philadelphia forecheck returns many familiar faces, led by Jensen Zerban, Aaron Maguyon, Andrew Bellant and Carter Woolley, a quartet that consistently gave the Knights problems in the teams’ 15 meetings a year ago. Zerban leads his team in scoring with three goals and three assists in six games played.
This EAST division match-up of the second and third place teams promises to be a high-powered fight between the high-octane offense of the Knights and the staunch defense of the Rebels.  You can catch all the action on HockeyTV at 7:10 PM on Friday and 6:50 on Saturday.  Follow @WBSKnights on Twitter for live updates!