Warriors remain in the hunt despite injuries

Considering the number of games lost due to injury this season, it’s amazing that the Stoney Creek Warriors remain in the hunt for the Golden Horseshoe League junior B hockey regular season title.

“We’ve lost more players to injury than any team in the league,” said coach and general manager Mike Schutte. “We’ve had players hurt in games, hurt in practice, or even hurt outside of hockey all together.” To date, almost 50 per cent of the Warriors’ current roster has been sidelined by injury.

The team started the season without star defenceman Sean Murray, who missed the first 13 games with a broken hand. In October, injuries to key players Mike Kavanagh and Greg Bryl devastated the Warriors’ top line. Both players missed more than 10 games. Also spending time in the infirmary have been defenceman Aaron Gorka (broken neck), Cayle Creen, Jordan Poole, Marcus Ruberto, Jason Bayne and Jordan Radford.

Going into this weekend’s action, the team is down to four defencemen, with Gorka, Eddie Wright, Bayne and Creen all sidelined. ““It’s been a real roller coaster ride of a season,” said Schutte. “Injuries have affected us deeply. We’ve lost some confidence, and just when we seem to turn the corner, we get bit by the injury bug once again.”

Despite the plethora of aches and pains suffered by the Warriors, the team still sits in third place in the GHL (13-9-1) with 27 points, just a few points shy of first place Niagara Falls. Stoney Creek has already surpassed last season’s total win count (11) and point total (25), and have been the biggest surprise of the 2006/07 season.

“Honestly, I thought we’d be even better at this point,” said Schutte when asked to reflect on the first half of the season. “I thought we’d be well above .500 and comfortably in first place. Now we have to battle hard in the second half of the season. I’m confident that with our line up back together, we can be a force in the league.”

Schutte admitted the team is still looking to upgrade the roster for a drive to the championship. “Some changes are coming,” he said. However, the coach did have some high praise for some of the younger players on the team who have stepped up and proved their worth.

“Mitchell Merante has worked his way into a key role through his hard work and execution,” said Schutte. “He fits into all kinds of situations and has really won our hearts.

“Jordan Winger and Marcus Ruberto have earned their ice time and acted like role models for other rookies. They prove what we’ve been pushing all year – that you get what you earn on this team.”

As for the veterans, Schutte said some key players are beginning to find their groove and will be real impact players over the last half of the season and into the playoffs.

“Jordan Gignac has really started to come around, and has become a real team player. He has worked hard on finishing checks and shortening his shifts. Andrew Dovey is on track to score over 100 points this season, and I believe he’s ready to start lighting it up again. On the blueline, Sean Murray is on the verge of regaining his timing after his injury. He’s jumping into holes at the right time, and his shot from the point is just missing the mark, but that will change.”

Heading into this weekend, Schutte said he was going to try some new line combinations in an effort to generate more offence. Dovey will now centre a line with Jamie Osborne and Jordan Gignac, while Mike Kavanagh, Greg Bryl and Jordan Poole will be re-united. Riley Steeves, Mitchell Merante and Adam Montgomery will form a line, and the ‘Kid Line’ stays intact with Jordan Winger, Marcus Ruberto and Jason Popek.

Schutte said he just handed out mid-season evaluations for his players, and expects improvements in areas of concern. The coaching staff also developed a play book that will be handed out to players this week. “We’re really concentrating on finishing the season strong,” said Schutte. “We need to take it one game at a time.”

Friday night (Nov. 23), Stoney Creek travels to Port Colborne for a tilt against the Sailors. The following night, the team is back down at the Old Barn – Stoney Creek Arena – for a key game against the Niagara Falls Canucks. Game time is 7:30 p.m.

This game is ONTRAC Night, and the first 100 youth will receive a souvenir puck. Everyone will also receive a ticket for a chance to win a Limited Edition John Deere mountain bike.

The Warriors next home game is Thursday, Nov. 29 when they host Port Colborne.