WEST GOSHEN — It was only the second game of the season when the Conestoga boys ice hockey team had its moment of clarity.
They can compete with anyone in the Central division.
“When we played Springfield this year, they jumped up 5-2 on us in the second period and we clawed back and made it a 5-4 game,” said coach Mike Graves. “We ended up losing 6-4, but that was the breakthrough for us. Last year, it would have been fold-up the tent and call it a night. This year, they showed a lot of character and fought back and I think that game really showed them they can compete with anybody when we play up to our potential and that we’re going to be in any game.”
Graves noticed on the bench that his players didn’t just roll over and admit defeat. Instead, they kept their calm and cool and continued to play.
It was the turning point the team needed, even if it was early in the season.
“It’s funny to call a turning point a game that you lose, but it was,” Graves said. “The game could have gotten out of hand, but we continued to fight. Springfield is perennially such a great team and to compete with them like that really opened their eyes to see what we can be if we want it.”
That change of mentality came in handy Friday night against Lower Merion (0-6) when Conestoga (5-2) had to play without some of its big names, but still pulled out a 6-3 win.
“Tonight was important because we’re down our two leading scorers and we’re down our two top defensemen,” Graves said. “We’re missing 4/5 of our top line. For the other guys to step up in their absence and not panic when they started to put a little pressure on us was another way to show us they can continue to play and stay poised.”
It was the second time in a row Conestoga faced off with its divisional opponent after beating the Aces 6-1 a week before.
“It’s a little tough especially because they know our game after the first one,” said forward Scott MacMillan. “We just gave it all of our effort and got the ‘W.’”
This game didn’t feel quite as comforting as a week prior, though, as after jumping out to a 5-1 lead midway through the third period, Lower Merion battled back to get within two goals.
After the two quick goals 22 seconds apart from Luc Legaspi, the Lower Merion coach could be heard yelling, “That’s why you don’t give up in a game” to his players.
The same could be said for the changed Conestoga team, which kept cool and calm under the pressure.
“I wasn’t happy to give up some goals late, but the atmosphere on the bench was great the whole time,” Graves said. “No one got negative and no one panicked. There was a lot of poise and good chemistry and good energy with these guys.”
MacMillan could feel the same from his teammates.
“On the bench it has been a lot better,” he said. “We’re more positive than last year.”
The win marks the fifth of the season for Conestoga, which already surpassed the two it had last season and the four the year before – and it was only the seventh game.
Not only do the wins show that Conestoga can play with the best of them, but that the Pioneers are back on track to becoming a Flyers Cup contender once again, which could very well happen this season.
“The last two years were certainly kind of an anomaly for us,” Graves said. “We took a lot of younger kids last year – the core of our team was sophomores – and it’s paying off now. They’re showing some maturity out there. The team is really gelling and playing well as a whole from top to bottom.”