A year ago, the Byram Hills hockey team won 15 of its 20 games in the regular season, along the way capturing a league title, and then nearly reached the Section 1, Division II championship game.
But that Bobcat squad still had the since-graduated star Robert Lunder constantly patrolling the ice. So even with more than a dozen players with plenty of experience back again this season, head coach A. J. Cloherty is taking a cautious approach as the Bobcats try to follow up on the best record in the program’s history.
“I don’ think we find out how real we are until February playoffs come around,” he was saying last Tuesday evening, shortly after the Bobcats had opened the 2017-18 season on the road against Pawling. “You know, you can look at records as we go through games — wins, losses — but what it really comes down to is who’s still standing at the end of the year.”
The first hints of what the Bobcats can accomplish this year, even without Lunder around to terrorize opposing goalies, came in their opening-night 7-1 rout of the host Tigers. Michael Salandra had three goals and an assist and Matthew Behar added two goals and an assist as the Bobcats overwhelmed Pawling in a game played at Tirrell Rink on the campus of Trinity-Pawling School.
According to Cloherty, even though the contest seemed to be a mismatch and the outcome was all but decided by the middle of the second period, there was still plenty he could discern about his players.
“We learned how our team’s looking in game play, which is important,” he said. “We learned how our line combinations work, what worked well, what didn’t. We learned what kind of systems we have to work on as opposed to ones that worked really well. And then we learned who can play defense and who can play offense who normally doesn’t because in the third period we had the luxury of a big lead and we can try players at different positions they aren’t used to.”
The Bobcats wound up outshooting Pawling by a whopping 35-8 margin and they didn’t need very long to get on the scoreboard for the first time this season. With just 1:44 elapsed, Mike DiMarco converted on a rebound and Byram Hills grabbed the lead. Three and a half minutes later, Bobcat goalie Grace Lunder preserved the Byram 1-0 advantage when she foiled the Tigers’ biggest threat, Cal Hade, on a semi-breakaway.
Byram Hills doubled its lead nearly eight minutes into the opening period as Salandra scored his first goal of the night by breaking in all alone and backhanding the puck past Tigers goalie Harrison Palmer. Just 29 seconds later, Behar, from behind the cage, sent the puck toward the crease and it caromed off Palmer into the net for a 3-0 Bobcat lead.
Pawling managed to score its lone goal with 2:08 left in the first period when Hade fired a shot from just inside the right point and Ryan Fitzsimmons pushed home the rebound from left of the crease. But with just 42 seconds left before the first intermission, the Bobcats’ Salandra, parked on the left doorstep, easily poked home the rebound of a shot by Ben Mautner.
The Bobcats stretched their lead to 5-1 nearly midway through the second period when Ethan Behar sent a pass from behind the cage in front to Salandra, who put it past Palmer to complete his hat trick. Less than a minute after he was robbed by Palmer on the left doorstep, Behar added his second goal, on a perfect pass from the left wing, with 4:26 to go in the second period, enabling Byram Hills to build a 6-1 cushion. Max Kruman provided the final goal, with 7:53 left in the game, easily guiding home the bouncing puck on another rebound in front of the net.
“One thing we really we want to work on this year is jumping on the goalie really early,” said Cloherty. “I know last year at times it took a little time for us to get on the board. So this year, if we can dump the puck, put pressure on them immediately and then get a few shots right on net real quick, that’s what we’re trying to do.”
No matter when and from whom the goals come this season, Cloherty knows the offense won’t resemble last year’s when Lunder was making his frequent and impressive end-to-end rushes up the ice.
“You don’t replace him,” said Cloherty. “You just reload the team with players that can work in a different type of system.”
The Bobcats return to action on Friday at 5:20 when they face Brewtown, the combo team from Brewster and Yorktown, at the Brewster Ice Arena.
“We always like getting a game under our belt early, before Thanksgiving,” said Cloherty. “That way, we can really see what we’ve got and use the Thanksgiving break for a time to reflect. Getting the win makes Thanksgiving a lot nicer, makes the turkey taste a little bit sweeter.”