Although its young roster has struggled for the better part of the season, the Prowler Hockey Association club team still believes there is time to turn things around.
After all, just two years ago, the Prowlers squeaked into the state tournament and went on to finish second in the Buckeye Cup.
"The goal right now is to take it to the next level in these last few weeks, qualify for the state tournament and surprise some teams," senior forward Caden Albert said. "We have the ability to get hot at the right time like we did in my sophomore season. We just caught a spark and flew. I think this team has the same amount of talent, maybe more, than the team two years ago."
Albert, who attends Pickerington North, and junior defenseman Garrett Bowers (Reynoldsburg) are the only skaters who were on that 2016-17 team.
The Prowlers are 10-21-7 overall and 6-11-4 (sixth) in the seven-team Ohio Scholastic Hockey League.
"The top 12 ranked teams in the state in (USA Hockey on myhockeyrankings.com) will make the state tournament and we're 11th right now," coach Bob McElheney said. "We're flirting with danger, but we're using it as motivation. We played pretty well (in the Avalanche Shootout on Jan. 19 and 20 in Grand Rapids, Michigan), so there's hope we're starting to come around.
"We lost 10 players to graduation last season and they all gave us major (offensive) production and great character. So we knew we'd take some lumps, but the Avalanche Shootout and the past few weeks give us optimism. It hasn't all been rainbows and gumdrops, but the kids are starting to mesh. It takes a while to build chemistry when 50 percent of these kids have never played together before."
The Prowlers went 1-2-1 in the Avalanche Shootout, beating Kalamazoo (Michigan) 3-2 and tying Prep (Mount Prospect, Illinois) at 3 on Jan. 19, but losing to Hilliard 5-1 and Lincoln-Way (New Lenox, Illinois) 4-1 on Jan. 20.
"We trailed Prep 3-0 entering the third period and rallied together to earn the tie," Albert said. "Then we couldn't follow that up the next day. It's been like that this season, a lot of up and down. We haven't been consistent and we need to capitalize more often on our chances, especially in the third period like we did against Prep."
McElheney said much of the Prowlers' inconsistency can be traced to its youth.
"We have flashes of brilliance and then a four- or five-minute stretch where everything breaks down," he said. "But the kids are still engaged and nobody's hair is on fire. We just need for it to come together quickly now."
The Prowlers will play Athens on Sunday, Feb. 3, at Chiller Easton and Newark on Feb. 7 at Lou & Gib Reese Ice Arena before closing the regular season Feb. 9 against Northeast at Chiller North.
Through 19 league games, Canal Winchester freshman forward Kyle Mead, Pickerington Central sophomore forward Brandon Hux and North junior forward Tanner Sabau were leading the Prowlers in scoring. Mead had team highs in goals (9) and points (18), Hux had eight goals and 15 points and Sabau had eight goals and 14 points.
"Sabau has really come on strong offensively and he also has a strong personality in the locker room," McElheney said. "We've leaned on him heavily and he's probably a better kid than he is a hockey player, even though he's a great hockey player."
The fourth-year coach also had praise for Licking Heights junior forward Paxton Waites and Central sophomore defenseman Sam Mills.
"Paxton has been exceptional and has improved tremendously," McElheney said. "He was on the third or fourth line to start the season and now he's on the second line and we sometimes use him on the top line. He's on our power play and penalty kill.
"Mills was in a developmental role last year and has really soaked things up like a sponge. He's so much better. His improvement has been remarkable."