BERWICK, NS - Most players and families were happy to see the annual Christmas break come up in the Maritime Hockey League schedule, but the Valley junior A Wildcats probably wanted to keep playing.
Following a slow start to the season, the Wildcats won their last three games heading into the break, and are climbing back into contention in the Eastlink South Division. Valley sits seven points behind the Truro Bearcats for the fourth and final playoff spot in the division.
“We're in a good mindset and we've shown it the last couple of games,” says Wildcats head coach Travis Young. “We've started to string some wins together, started to play more consistently, and that's what we're going to have to do over the second half.”
After opening the season with only three points from their first eight games, Young's charges have played 500 hockey since. The coach says the players don't feel out of the race despite the uphill climb they're facing.
“It's a tight-knit group. They get along really well, and that carries over onto the ice. We're starting to play better and get some better results. We have to keep doing that,” he added.
Young has plenty of praise for his veteran players, both for their work on the ice and off it.
“The veterans have done a great job in the room. The young guys look up to them, respect them. That's the most important thing especially when you've got a younger team.”
“Drew Packman's been huge for us,” Young adds, talking about a player who's played forward and defence at different times. “Just the fact that he can play up front, play on the back end. He's given us that steady reliable guy at the point that we were missing with guys like Brendan Lanning and Matthew O'Leary out of the line up with injuries.”
Speaking prior to the team's final game before the break, a 5–3 victory over the South Shore Lumberjacks in Bridgewater on Dec. 15, Young pointed to positive contributions from players up and down the line up, from captain Makail Parker to rookies like defenceman Ben Varga, and forwards Taylor Ewing and Riley MacInnis.
Young also points to team-leading scorer Brock McLeod and his hard work for their success.
“McLeod has been huge here lately,” Young said. “It's always tough for those guys coming back from major junior. He's done the extra work and simplified his game and he's really seeing a lot of success. He's a top offensive guy in this league.”
Young says he can see guys improving on a daily basis, and that's giving everyone confidence.
“Overall, I'm just really happy with the progression we're seeing from the guys, that's the big thing,” he said. “It's good for a guy's confidence to get some results from that as well.”
MHL rosters are frozen over the holiday period, but re-open just before the trade deadline in early January. The Wildcats have already made several trades in the first half of the season to bring in size and toughness in the form of defencemen Brendan Lanning, Matthew O'Leary and Mark Kennedy as well as forward Tristan Bowlby.
Last year, Valley traded away much of their top-end talent for prospects and draft picks at the trade deadline, but with the youth movement already in place and the team's gathering momentum, Young says he doesn't expect a lot of movement before the deadline.
“The goal all along has been to get into the playoffs, and we haven't wavered from that,” says Young. “We're confident with the group we have. If we keep doing what we're doing right now, keep playing like we're playing, I think we'll give it a good run.”
If you go: The Wildcats will be back in action with a pair of home games Dec. 29 against Amherst and Dec. 30 against South Shore. Puck drop in Berwick is at 7 p.m. both nights.