Chieftains getting healthy as postseason approaches

By: Thomas Franz | Shelby - Utica News | Published February 5, 2014

 Utica junior forward Jake Ladenberger skates ahead with the puck during a game against Sterling Heights Stevenson earlier this season.

Utica junior forward Jake Ladenberger skates ahead with the puck during a game against Sterling Heights Stevenson earlier this season.

Photo by Patricia O’Blenes

UTICA — At 3-9, things looked very bleak for the Utica hockey team going into the second week of January.

Then it all changed.

The Chieftains have won four out of five games to propel themselves back into the hunt for a MAC White title.

“It feels nice. We’d been struggling a little at the beginning of the year, but everyone got healthy now and we’ve figured some stuff out. We’re doing pretty well, and I’m comfortable with where we’re at,” second-year coach Matt Burke said.

Utica is coming off an 18-win season last year, so expectations were high for this year’s team, and Burke challenged his players by putting together a more difficult schedule for this year.

“I think our strength of schedule is a little harder this year than last year. It shows me what kind of team you’re made of,” Burke said. “We could’ve easily rolled over being 3-9 earlier, but we have so much talent that when guys got healthy and the chemistry was there, so that’s how we went on our winning streak.”

Injuries and illness plagued Utica for the first half of the season, but Burke also noted that having to be creative with line formations led to some inconsistent play early on.

Burke said getting everyone on the same page is a “process,” adding that the team certainly has enough talent to be successful.

That talent Burke refers to is the four senior forwards on the front line. Evan Gizinski (34 points at press time), Kyle Allard (26 points), Alec George (19 points) and captain DJ Labash make up the quartet of forwards who are now all on the ice and playing effectively.

“Coming into the second half after a rough first, it was kind of a big wake-up call. For us seniors, this is all we have left here, so we have to keep working hard and staying positive in practice,” Labash said. “Everyone’s staying together as a unit, and I think we’ll win a lot of games in the second half and, hopefully, make a run in the playoffs.”

Josh Grady is the other senior on the team and lone senior on the  defense. Burke explained that although the defense is improving, he wants his offense to be aggressive to make up for the inexperience of his defensemen.

“We have a great offense, and we’re hard to stop. Our power play has gotten better and better. Defensively, we’re young, and I stress defense as much as I can, but we want to be an aggressive team. If you have guys who can score goals, then sometimes you just have to tell them to go,” Burke said.

This past weekend, Utica had a league contest against Romeo and a game in the MAC-OAA Showcase vs. Avondale. The Chieftains will play their next game against South Lyon on Feb. 7 at the Chelsea Arctic Coliseum at 10:15 am.