ASTON >> For more than a decade, Springfield has been the most consistent performer in Central League hockey. You can pencil in the Cougars for two title runs each season, one for the league championship, the other for the Flyers Cup. And yet there was real doubt coming into the 2017-18 campaign.
“We weren’t really sure what we had,” said Springfield coach Phil Eastman, who’s been the head man on the bench since 2007. “We lost a lot of seniors last season, particularly defensemen.”
Into December, however, the Cougars have resembled those celebrated squads of yesteryear. On Wednesday night at Ice Works they dispatched Penncrest, 4-1, to push their undefeated record to 8-0.
“We came into the season with a label on us that we were going to be one of the worst teams in the league,” said senior captain Kevin Brown, who scored a hat trick. “We lost major players. But we got freshmen that came up ready to play. Everyone is filling their role.”
The ability to play three lines and four defensemen consistently separates Springfield from its Central rivals, but that’s always been case; there’s something different about this edition.
“Part of the key is the work ethic,” Eastman said. “When everyone is working hard and pushing each other, it kind of rubs off.”
That was evident as the Cougars overcame early frustration against the Lions. Springfield outshot Penncrest 16-0 in the first period and didn’t allow a shot until 3:40 into the second. John Mundy was outstanding in the Lions’ crease through the opponent’s dominance. He stoned Dan Barrett with a stick save with 2:45 to go in the first. He stretched out to deny Chad Ruppert on a breakaway in the second.
Mundy’s heroics paid off when Matthew Dougherty bagged his 12th goal of the year on a coast-to-coast rush. It was just the Lions’ second shot. But it gave them a lead.
Despite controlling play and trailing on the scoreboard, Springfield wasn’t fazed.
“It doesn’t matter about the score,” Brown said. “It matters about the heart we have.”
The Cougars have always relied on depth, but they’ve also always carried at least one offensive star. Brown is the closest to that on this team. He answered Dougherty’s marker with two goals of his own, the first on a breakaway — complete with a smart deke to the backhand — and the second on a power-play rebound.
“It’s the heart,” Brown said. “I dig down for my team. We’re down a goal, I’m going to work my butt off to get us back in the game.”
“Even though we have a long ways to go, he’s a terrific player,” Eastman gushed about Brown. “He has demonstrated the ability to come up with big plays when we need them. That what leaders do.”
Brown added his third in the final frame, and it might have been his best. He was hooked entering the offensive zone, losing a race to the puck in the process. There was no call. Instead of stalling, Brown picked the defenseman’s pocket and beat Mundy to the backhand before the goaltender could make a move.
Thomas Yocum added a blast from the point to complete the scoring for the Cougars, who fired 35 shots on goal to Penncrest’s eight.
But this is a young Lions team (3-5-1, 3-4-1 league) with room to grow. Night’s like this, playing a tough opponent close, can make the difference down the line.
“From last year, we lost a lot of players,” Dougherty said. “We’re still trying to figure everything out. But the attitude is much better. We just need to keep playing. It’ll come eventually.”
They can build on their netminder’s performance in particular.
“He had only given up one goal on 20-some shots to start,” Dougherty said. “That’s going to be a great confidence for him. I was really happy for him.”
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