Men’s Hockey split opening games against Guelph and Western in their return to the ice
632 days removed from their last game; the Golden Hawks men’s hockey program returned to the ice last week with a successful road trip to begin the new Ontario University Athletics (OUA) season. Laurier opened their season with back-to-back games against two of the top teams in the province – Guelph and Western –splitting the contests to finish their opening week with a 1-1 record.
The Golden Hawks made the short travel to Guelph last Thursday and defeated the defending Queen’s cup champion Gryphon’s to begin their season on a winning note, before dropping a tightly contested game against the Mustangs the next night.
“It was an exciting time for all of the guys to get a regular-season game in,” Coach Greg Puhalski said. “It’s a good way to jump right into the season,” he continued.
Laurier began the unique OUA season with a rematch against the team they had faced during their last on-ice competition, nearly two years ago. The Gryphons eliminated the Golden Hawks in three games during the OUA West quarter-finals in February of 2020.
The Golden Hawks are looking to build off a strong finish from that 2019-20 season where the team won 10 of their final 14 games, to clinch a playoff spot and earn their first national ranking in nearly a decade before losing to the eventual provincial champion Gryphons.
Laurier will play in the OUA far west division this year, competing against Waterloo, Windsor, Guelph and Western. The reduced 20-game schedule will see each team play their division rival five times throughout the year, as the league focused on regional travel given the ongoing pandemic.
Like most OUA teams, Laurier will have to rely on a balance of veterans and fresh faces to spark their production after several key players from the 2020 roster graduated from the men’s hockey program. Former captain Will Cook, and their top three leading scorers from the past season; Anthony Conti, Danny Hanlon and Ethan Wiseman are no longer a part of Coach Puhalski’s squad.
Given 600 plus days since their last competition and a large amount of first and second-year players in the fold-over 15 rookies who haven’t experienced OUA competition – the team will increasingly rely on its veterans to take on a leadership role, mentoring many of the new players.
“Like a lot of teams, you’re not sure exactly what you have yet because we have 15 new players on our team, trying to get accustomed to the system,” Coach Puhalski said.
“Our leadership has done an excellent job of leading the right way and trying to make sure that everybody, as well as themselves, are as prepared as they can be for the season,” he continued.
On the strength of four student-athletes who recorded their first goal in the purple and gold, three of which played in their first game with the Golden Hawks, Laurier was able to defeat Guelph 5-3 on opening night, spoiling the banner raising celebrations for the Gryphons.
Rookie’s Justyn Gurney, Caleb Rich and Bair Gendunov scored a goal in their first OUA game, while second-year defenseman, Jake Payette scored his first career goal – a game-winner – in his 18th regular-season game with the Hawks. Payette will assume a much larger role this season, given some of the departures on the blue line.
Rookie goaltender and Burlington native, Christian Propp started his first OUA game between the pipes and made 26 stops to propel Laurier to the opening night victory.
The team saw contributions from veterans Anthony Sorrentino and team captain Zack Dybowski as well. Sorrentino scored a goal and notched an assist to achieve his 50th career regular-season point with the Golden Hawks, while Dybowski recorded two assists himself on the night.
“I think everybody is in a good frame of mind,” Coach Puhalski said.
Laurier had a quick turnaround the next night as they faced the nationally-ranked Mustangs, who captured OUA bronze in 2020. On the second night of a back-to-back, All-rookie OUA goaltender, Matt Williams got his first start of the season following an impressive first year. The Mustangs however scored two powerplay goals on the night and defeated Laurier with a tight 4-3 victory.
While Puhalski finds it incredibly tough to compare the 2020 playoff team to this year’s roster, the Golden Hawks have been able to re-create their dynamic offense from last season, having scored eight goals in the team’s first two games.
“We’re a little quicker team, so that might lend ourselves to being able to create more offense on the rush,” Coach Puhalski said.
Laurier is tied for third in the OUA in goals scored and second in the province in shot percentage after their first two games.
The Golden Hawks will return to the Waterloo Memorial Recreational Complex this Thursday to begin a three-game stand at home – their first home game since before the pandemic. Laurier will host the first instalment of the “Battle of Waterloo” this Thursday before playing the Windsor Lancers on Saturday.
Laurier has won two in a row against both the Warriors and the Lancers and will hope to improve on that streak when they return to their home ice this Thursday.