Colby Tower picked up a goal in the Wildcats 3-2 win over the Crushers Jan. 25. - Gary Manning
It’s hard to tell what the expectations were for the Valley Junior A Wildcats this season, but whatever they were, the team has already exceeded them.
The fifth-place Wildcats took on the second-place Weeks Crushers last week. Valley claimed a 5-4 victory Jan. 23 in Pictou County, then for good measure, edged the Crushers again, 3-2, on Jan. 25 in Kentville, to improve to 17-18-3-1 on the season, good for 38 points.
First-year defenseman Brady Atwater of Kentville had the game-winning goal in both games, and now has seven goals and 20 points in 34 games this season.
The former NKEC Titan has “really been stepping up his play,” says Wildcats head coach Nick Greenough.
“Everyone knew Brady could do the job offensively, but I’ve been happy with his whole game, and especially his taking responsibility in the defensive zone,” Greenough said, adding that Atwateralso “has the green light to step up into the play,” which has been paying dividends.
The Wildcats, who appear further and further away from the 2012-2013 Metro Shipbuilders with every game they play, also officially clinched an MJHL playoff spot with the two wins, and can now concentrate on trying to move up in the standings.
“Right now, we’re looking at a mini-series (with the fourth-place team),” Greenough said.
Yarmouth, currently fourth, has 49 points to Valley’s 38, but the ’Cats “still have (13) games left to try and make up ground. It gives us something to shoot for,” Greenough added.
In the Jan. 23 win in Westville, Brad Ryckman, Valley’s leading scorer, led the way with two goals. At the start of the week, Ryckman had 19 goals and 33 points in 34 games played this season.
Recently-acquired John Deacon of Port Williams and Pat MacIsaac each had a goal and an assist, with Deacon opening the scoring. Atwater’s game-winner was scored at 15:05 of the third period, breaking a 4-4 tie.
On Jan. 25 in Kentville, Ryckman scored in the first period, Colby Tower (9-20-29 in 35 games) in the second, and Atwater at 10:53 of the third to give the Wildcats a 3-1 lead.
Greenough termed the sweep of Pictou County “a good confidence builder for us. We played them tough both games. We’d like to move up if we can. We’re happy with where we are, but you’d always like to be better.”
After a series of injuries earlier in the season, the Wildcats are healthy now. Greenough feels that with a full lineup, “we can play with the top teams.”
Valley was active at the MJHL trading deadline, picking up such players as Deacon, Jeremy Butterworth and Jean-Marc Evans-Renaud.
“I definitely feel the changes we’ve made have helped,” Greenough said. “We got younger and better at the same time, improving ourselves both for this season and for the future.”
Defensemen Atwater, Erik Campbell, Sheehan Kirkwood and Austin Harding, forwards Deacon, Jamie MacIntyre and Josh Worthen, and goalie Bobby Palzer were all born in 1995. Evans-Renaud and affiliated player Nick Bruce were born in 1996, Tower and goalie Blade Mann-Dixon in 1997.
“The new players are improving with every game,” Greenough said. “I’d say the moves we made have worked out in our favour.”
The Wildcats, who have won three straight, are back in action this weekend at home, hosting Truro on Jan. 31 and South Shore on Feb. 1.
See a slideshow of photos from the Jan. 25 game here.