Hilliard club hockey coach Wade Bartley had to chuckle during a recent conversation with assistant coach Todd Piche, partly because of an embarrassment of riches and partly because his team has a penchant for giving its opponents headaches.
Seventeen players have scored for the Wildcats through 33 games, giving Bartley a myriad of options when it comes to mixing and matching lines.
"Every night, there's someone different and that's the best part of it," Bartley said. "Todd and I were talking about how tough it is to match lines with us because we are pretty deep. Our lines are never really set, which keeps teams off balance. We're not necessarily going with Kyle (Majher) and Gus (Oberdick) and (Patrick) Feldkamp. That's once or twice, but it's always a different look and there's an advantage to this kind of depth."
Majher, a senior forward, has 26 goals to lead the Wildcats, who endured their first loss in six weeks Jan. 6 when they fell to Newark 3-0. Their previous setback came Nov. 24, when they lost to Oakville (Ontario) Abbey Park 4-2 in the Midwest Thanksgiving Classic to drop to 10-12-2 overall.
Hilliard is 7-1-1 since, with their only other non-win being a 3-all tie with Newark in a Greater Columbus High School Club Hockey League contest Dec. 6.
Majher said the Wildcats, who are 17-13-3 overall and 11-3-1 in the GCHSCHL, vividly remember the lessons they learned during early-season tournaments in Cleveland and Nashville.
"Up in Cleveland, watching those composite teams we played move the puck was impressive," he said. "They didn't rely on hitting so much, but actually playing hockey instead of the old-time hockey we play here that can be pretty brutal and no one's trying to move the puck. It showed us we definitely can win doing it that way. We don't really like that ... but if we would play that way the whole game, it would really help us a lot. It has to do with the new guys coming in. They have the jitters and they're trying to skate hard, not really processing how much time they have out there."
Senior forward Kenyon Clevenger and his linemate and classmate, Oberdick, both have 11 goals, and junior forward Tyler Hernandez has 10. Five other players have at least five goals.
"We move the puck and open it up more," senior defender Landon Gruszewski said. "We cycle well down low and that adds up points and scoring opportunities."
Hilliard's defense has limited its opponents' opportunities in front of junior goaltender Mack Burton and his backup, freshman Simo Huhtanen. The Wildcats have allowed two or more goals just four times since losing their first four games in a tournament Oct. 6 and 7 in Cleveland, where they were outscored 20-3.
While Bartley called Burton the "backbone of our team," Burton said the competition with Huhtanen has benefited both goalies.
"I push myself harder," said Burton, who credited Gruszewski and seniors E.J. Graf and Thomas Wright for the defense's resurgence. "I was the only guy last year and I had all the games, so there was no pressure, really. But we lost a lot on defense, so I've been able to see a lot of shots and it's helped me."
Burton has appeared in 23 games and Huhtanen in 11. Bartley has treated the forward and defense rotations much the same way, shortening his bench in recent weeks as league play dominated the schedule.
"It's a learning experience and it shows when they get out there," Bartley said. "Overall, we do things that make us successful. We're pretty solid defensively. We're fast and I think we wear teams down and get opportunities and win games."