After having lost in double overtime to Pennington in the Independence Hockey League (IHL) championship game last winter, the Hun School boys’ hockey team was on a mission this season to capture the elusive title.
But as Hun hosted the Haverford School (Pa.) last Friday in the IHL championship game, it looked like history might be repeating itself when the Raiders fell behind 1-0.
Hun head coach Ian McNally acknowledged that his players were a bit frazzled in the early going.
“It is the third time we have played them and that is the best they have come out so you know what, they definitely outplayed us at the start, they came out flying,” said McNally.
“In our league we didn’t lose a game, I think we had 10 wins and two ties so we didn’t have a ton of adversity. The result of that was that our guys started panicking on the bench and panicking on the ice, just getting a little frenzied.”
Senior star Eric Szeker concurred, attributing the slow start to some nerves.
“I think the jitters got to us in the first couple of shifts there,” said Szeker. “They scored a quick one on us and that kind of woke us up and we got our feet moving again.”
The Raiders got moving in the right direction as Nick Guns scored a goal to make it 1-1 and then in between periods the Raiders were reassured by a calming message from McNally.
“He said to stick with it,” recalled Szeker. “We knew we were going to get our goals. We know that we have a good offense. We can put pucks home and he told us to just to stay with it. The defensive zone was our main focus in this game.”
The Raiders seized control of the game in the second period, outscoring Haverford 3-0 in that 15-minute stretch.
“It is the last game of the season and we have to leave it all on the line and it was one of our better periods of the year,” said Szeker, who scored early in the second period to put Hun ahead 2-1. “We got a lot of goals and it helped set us up for the third period.”
Szeker’s classmate, star forward Alex Vukasin, scored the fourth goal in the last minute of the period to give the Raiders some extra momentum heading into the last 15 minutes of regulation.
“That definitely wasn’t a pretty one but it was sure satisfying,” said Vukasin.
“Basically we know that we are not a team with super-skilled players on this team, we have good players on this team. We know that our goals come from fighting in the crease, we have a lot of rebound goals. My goal was a rebound. We have been making sure that we win puck battles, that is pretty much our team motto this year.
Those goals plus a power play tally by Szeker in the third period proved to be enough as Hun held off a late Haverford rally to win 5-3 and earn the title.
The Raiders did have to battle to earn the title as they were playing shorthanded down the stretch, at one point having to kill off a 5-on-3 situation.
“We were on our heels, they definitely made a final push,” said Szeker, reflecting on the waning moments of the win which left Hun with a final record of 16-5-4.
“It is the end of their season too and they don’t want to lose either; they came out hard but as a team we stuck together and we got the job done at the end.”
In Vukasin’s view, the determination of the Hun seniors helped pave the way to the title.
“This shows the tenacity our seniors have had in the four years, we have had tough times,” said Vukasin, who also had an assist on Szeker’s third period goal.
“Last year we just missed it so we were pushing and pushing this year and we finally came through. The seniors on our team wanted it and the young guys followed our example, maintaining the same work ethic as we have been doing and putting in 100 percent every practice.”
McNally was not surprised that Szeker and Vukasin came through in the finale.
“I told Eric before the game, just be the guy,” said McNally, who also got a goal in the victory from senior Jordan Wang.
“He is the best player in the league, I said go ahead and show that and he did. He was very vocal, he scored two goals. He was our captain and he led us. Alex is so consistent, you know exactly what you are going to get out of him every game. He did it again. He can beat people to these pucks and outmuscle them and score goals. He helped us gain momentum.”
The Raiders gained momentum from the leadership of its senior class. “The seniors were great, especially down the stretch when we played the second half of the league and went 6-0 after we tied a couple in the first half,” said McNally, whose group of seniors included Andrew Zhou, Peter Nawn, Matt Waxman, and Anton Salienko in addition to Szeker, Vukasin, and Wang.
“That was on them. We had a meeting about that, we have seven of them and they led the way. It was good, even the younger guys were talking let’s do it for the seniors. The right message has been sent where I don’t have to be the one pushing all the time. They are doing it themselves.”
In McNally’s view, the program sent a major message by winning the IHL crown.
“I think it is big,” said McNally, who cited the effort of junior goalie Devin Cheifetz in the title game as he made 39 saves and fought through a second period neck injury.
“Throughout the day at school, people were coming up to me saying good luck in the game and that didn’t really happen last year because we just generated a little buzz for Hun hockey. I just told the players afterward congratulations you guys just started this program, doing this. It means a lot, it justified our team and it put us on the map. We played strong all year, we did it when it mattered, we won the league and we only plan to get better from here.”
Szeker, for his part, will remember the strong bonds the team formed this winter in its championship campaign.
“We were family on and off the ice,” said Szeker. “At school in the lunch time, everyone sits together. Everyone hangs out on free periods that we have; everyone is with each other. It is hockey 24/7 with us and to bring something home is really special for all of us.”