Hockey: Relentless defense keeping St. Charles Cardinals’ opponents in check
Defense isn’t the most exciting part of hockey, unless you’re a coach.
Ninth-year St. Charles coach Rob Sangster said the heart and soul of his top-seeded district team has been its corps of defensemen, which had helped the Cardinals surrender just 1.8 goals per contest entering the postseason.
Sangster said his team’s defense would help lead the Cardinals to any success they might find in the district tournament.
“If you play a strong defensive system, you can beat anybody,” said Sangster, whose team was 16-6-1 before playing 12th-seeded New Albany or 23rd-seeded Cincinnati Sycamore on Feb. 20 in the second round. “In my opinion, when a really strong defense goes up against a really strong offense, I think the majority of the time that defense wins. You can say that for most sports, but particularly hockey.
“I feel defense is the strength of our team. We’ve given up 1.8 goals per game in the regular season, and that’s including a beating by (Lakewood) St. Edward 7-0 (on Jan. 16) after coming off (quarantine from) COVID(-19). When we do our job defensively by giving up one or two goals, most times we typically can come up with enough goals.”
The Cardinals have two senior defensemen in Sam Carey and Ryan Lewis and three juniors in Tristan Fahs, Sam Mickey and Erich Schoettmer. Pat Moore is a sophomore defenseman along with Ambrose Heyer, who has split time between varsity and j.v.
“We do the ‘swarm’ defensively,” Fahs said. “You have to double up on the puck, and if it pops out the second defenseman comes in to get it.
“We work really hard in the corners to get that puck and we’re physical. If that puck pops out, we can have a scoring opportunity.”
Assistant coach Nick Edinger, who runs the defensive end of the ice, said fundamentals are as important as any component on defense.
“The biggest thing is watching the chest and not going for the puck,” he said. “A lot of guys do a lot of toe-drags and we don’t take the body and watch the chest.
“I think our defensemen are composed when they have the puck. A lot of them have played varsity for three or four seasons and they’re used to the pressure. They don’t panic and throw the puck around. All of them want the puck on their stick. That’s what has given us success.”
The defensemen have been invaluable to goalies Cooper Tyson (.896 save percentage) and Grant Wolf (.928).
“We play tight defense, and we’re all there for each other,” Wolf said. “If I don’t do my job, they help me out. We always cover for each other and we play our best hockey together.
“They’re there to pick up guys in front, pick up sticks, so there are no second chances. They’re there to save my butt if I don’t do my job.”
Carey said the team’s chemistry has been an important part of its defensive success.
“We have better chemistry and we know where everyone is going to be,” he said. “We don’t necessarily have to talk all of the time because we know where everyone is. Communication is important, so we know who’s in front of the net and we don’t lose a guy getting a back-door pass for an easy goal.”
Lewis said the communication needed for good defense can take different forms.
"Communication is important just from being as simple as knowing where someone is to making sure that that guy is there,” he said. ”It can be as simple as the tapping of a stick.
“You go to the NHL and you can see how loud the players communicate and the best teams do that. One of things that you’re in full control of is how much you communicate.”
The winner of the Cardinals’ second-round district contest plays eighth-seeded Thomas Worthington, ninth-seeded Dublin Jerome, 22nd-seeded DeSales or 25th-seeded Dublin Scioto in a quarterfinal Feb. 27 at OhioHealth Ice Haus. The winner advances to a district semifinal Feb. 28 at the Ice Haus, with possible opponents including fourth-seeded Oxford Talawanda and fifth-seeded Olentangy Orange.
St. Charles defeated Orange 1-0 in a Blue Jackets Cup semifinal Feb. 13 before losing to Upper Arlington 3-2 in the final a day later.
Orange has potent forwards who the Cardinals were able to shut down. St. Charles lost to the Pioneers 4-3 on Jan. 10 but won the second meeting 5-2 on Feb. 5.
“We made sure we stayed inside the face-off dots and forced them to the outside,” Schoettmer said. “If we see them lining up to shoot, we get a stick on it. It’s that simple. We had a back-checker making sure they get the third guys so they can’t dish it off to the trailer. Honestly, we just locked them down.”
The Cardinals entered the postseason looking for their first district title since 2014, when they defeated Orange 3-1 in the final before losing 3-1 to Sylvania Northview in a state semifinal.
“We have to stay within our system,” Edinger said. “When things get tough, a lot of people want to run around but we have to stay tight in our zone, in the neutral zone and in our own zone around our goalie and collapse in front of him, whether it’s Grant or Cooper. We have to take care of business defensively because that will win you the game.”