While they may have been the underdogs in the Nova Scotia Junior Hockey League when they joined the league this fall, the Valley Maple Leafs are proving they are a force to be reckoned with.
If Josh Dill, the head coach for the new franchise, has anything to say about it, the team will be in the running for the playoffs.
“I know everyone in the hockey world said we were going to finish dead last,” said Dill in a phone interview. “We still have a lot of hockey left to play. Right now we're sitting, I think, one point out of second, I think five points out of first. The two teams ahead of us have two games in hand.”
According to the Fred Fox Division standings, the Leafs are in third place, trailing the Eastern Shore Junior Mariners by one point and the Sackville Blazers by five. Taking into account the Sid Rowe Division as well, the Leafs are in fifth place overall.
Of the 21 games the Leafs have played this season, they recorded 10 wins, five losses, four shootout losses and two overtime losses.
“The last five or six games, we didn't have much success but we had a lot of guys out of the line up and guys are tired from school,” said Dill. “Once we get back from break, we need to pick it up and get back on the winning track.”
The team's captain, Nathan Little, was injured Nov. 24 when the home team hosted the Blazers.
“He hurt his knee and he tried skating last week and he's still, for sure, not ready to play. Hopefully these three weeks will give him a chance to get lots of rest,” said Dill, noting Little did not suffer any ligament damage.
Dill said Little is “probably one of the best defencemen in the league. Ever since he got hurt, we started losing a few games. It shows how much he means to the team.”
According to the NSJHL statistics on the Valley Maple Leafs, Jory Uhlman, David Hayes, Brandon Parker, Jake Galbraith and Austin Himmelman are leading the team in scoring.
Uhlman, of Bridgewater, currently leads the team in points scored, having netted seven goals and 15 assists. He's an alternate captain.
“Right now, he would be our most valuable player, in my mind,” said Dill. “He's doing everything he has to do as an overage player, as a leader, to make the team win.”
Hayes, from Delhaven, leads the team in goals scored, having netted 10 in 14 games, and contributed eight assists for a total of 18 points. He was out for part of the season with an injury but is now back in the line up, Dill said.
Parker, from Brooklyn, serves as an alternate captain. He sits in third place in overall team scoring, having potted nine goals and seven assists for a total of 16 points. He’s also accumulated 74 penalty minutes.
Galbraith, of Mt. Uniacke, and Himmelman, of Bedford, both have accumulated 15 points this season. Both have scored six goals and assisted with nine others.
Although not a leading scorer, alternate captain and defenceman Jeff Longaphy, from Kentville, is making a lasting impression. So far this season he has scored once, assisted on five goals and been in the penalty box for 62 minutes.
“Jeff is a quiet leader on our team. He's a second year guy,” said Dill.
“He's probably one of the toughest players in the league — he's probably the hardest hitter in the league — and the guys on our team look up to Jeff,” Dill added. “He wears an A. He's not the guy that's going to talk the most or anything but he just leads by example.”
Dill said the team has been working well together and sees great things for 2013.
“For a first year team, I think we came out and surprised a lot of people,” said Dill, noting they are going to build on their initial success.
“From Day 1, our goal was to make the playoffs. Hopefully we can do that.”
The guys are back in action Jan. 4 at Acadia Arena when they host the St. Margaret's Bay Ducks for a 7 p.m. start. The next night, they travel into Bay Ducks territory for a rematch. The Ducks are currently in fifth place, five points behind the Leafs in the Fred Fox Division.
Dill said fans won't want to miss what's in store in the new year.
“They're going to see fast hockey, hard-hitting. It's going to be fun to watch.”