Though the Gahanna Lincoln High School hockey team's overall record may not be impressive, there is reason for optimism as it prepares for the bulk of the Capital Hockey Conference schedule after the holidays.

Though the Gahanna Lincoln High School hockey team's overall record may not be impressive, there is reason for optimism as it prepares for the bulk of the Capital Hockey Conference schedule after the holidays.

The Lions, who were 3-7-2 overall before playing Oxford Talawanda last Wednesday, not only have already faced many of the top teams from central Ohio and three others from Michigan and Canada, but they have played most of their games at less than full strength.

Senior defenseman Connor Smallwood and junior forward Quentin Holmes each has been out since Gahanna opened at the Midwest Thanksgiving Classic in late November, but coach Dante Scuderi expects both to be in the lineup when the Lions return to action Jan. 1 against DeSales at Chiller Easton.

"Overall, I think we've made good progress since the beginning of the year," Scuderi said. "And again, without having Quentin, who's a goal-scorer, and Connor, who's a good set-up man, we've struggled a little bit."

Scuderi said the loss of those two players has hurt in both the offensive and defensive end. Without Smallwood, one of the team's most physical players, the Lions have moved senior Brad Tarbutton to defense.

Tarbutton has played well in the new role, and Scuderi said he might use him on defense even after Smallwood returns, but the move has taken another offensive weapon out of a forward spot.

Gahanna was averaging 3.0 goals a game through 12 games. Nine players, including newcomers such as freshmen Austin Hays and Brandon Staneluis, have at least one goal, but the Lions expect an increase in production when Smallwood and Holmes, two established scorers, return to the lineup.

Still, the Lions said they need to continue to work on all facets of their offense, from passing to crashing the net for rebounds.

"We're just not finishing quite yet," Scuderi said. "We've been working on shooting and crashing and finishing. We're definitely setting ourselves up. It's just around that net, finishing that stuff up around that net, that's going to take us to the next level."

"We're still working on shot rebounds, but we're also working on give-and-goes and giving solid passes," Hays said. "We don't always give each other solid passes. We need to move the puck quicker."

On defense, the Lions have a veteran group even with Smallwood out. Tarbutton and Alex Barok each has been on varsity for at least three seasons, and joining them on the defensive corps is Dom Palombaro, who saw varsity time last season and has provided a physical presence that belies his age.

"He's a big kid who takes great direction and is easy to coach," Scuderi said of Palombaro. "He listens pretty well and if you give him good direction, he takes it and runs with it. It doesn't hurt that he's a 6-foot-tall sophomore weighing 180 pounds."

"I've had to step up a lot (with Smallwood out)," Palombaro said. "I'm trying to be more physical than I have been and help move the puck more."

The Lions have used three goaltenders so far this season. In addition to seniors Phillip Wellmer and Josh Nemec, who have shared the starting duties the past two seasons, freshman Nick Kasubinski has seen significant action.

Kasubinski started both games against PRPC at the tournament in Detroit earlier this month: a 2-1 win on Dec. 11 and a 2-all tie on Dec. 13. He had 20 saves in the tie.

Scuderi said he's still planning on using all three goalies, depending on performance.

"Our seniors, Josh Nemec and Phil Wellmer, they've been here and done that, so we definitely need their experience to help these (freshmen) grow," he said.