PAWTUCKET --- There are some benefits to having just 14 players on your hockey team.
Playing time shouldn’t be hard to come by. You don’t have to share a seat on any long bus rides to away games. And you have plenty of room to yourself in some of the cramped locker rooms some of this state’s rinks have to offer.
Unfortunately, there are more cons than pros in having such a small squad, especially when your team is playing three 15-minute periods every night in a competitive league such as the 15-team Division II.
That’s the ultimate challenge St. Raphael Academy is saddled with this year, as the Saints and first-year head coach Rick Zuckerman are sporting just 14 players, three of which are strictly netminders. The next smallest team in the league is Toll Gate, which has 17 players, but just two goalies.
The Saints graduated eight full-time players from last winter’s playoff team, and one of the team’s top scorers didn’t return for his senior season, helping make this winter’s team the smallest in the program’s history.
“We’re going to play the best with what we have,” offered Zuckerman. “We have some very good players on this team, but they have to know that with this many kids, you have to do everything extra harder that the other teams. You have to take that extra step and you have to be disciplined.
“Luckily we get that ice between the second and third periods to give them that break and let them catch their wind a little bit. But for this team, it’s a matter of getting in shape, playing smart hockey, and burying our chances when we get them. Those are the three things we have to do.”
Another strike against the Saints is their lack of upperclassmen. They only have two seniors and four juniors, but their future looks bright with a heavy sophomore class and a few of the division’s top underclassmen.
“Obviously we’re trying to build a program for the future,” said Zuckerman. “We’re only losing two kids this year, so we have a very young team, but if we start to get four or five kids next year and a couple of more kids the year after, this team’s going to have a heck of a future.”
Surprisingly, the Saints have only played three times, but after Saturday’s 9 p.m. game against the Providence Country Day/Wheeler School co-op team at Lynch Arena, their schedule picks up steam.
The following weekend, they have three road contests in a four-day stretch against crossover foes Toll Gate, Middletown, and Narragansett (a Martin Luther King Day afternoon special), and then they play back-to-back nights for the next two weekends.
Conditioning will be of the utmost importance during this stretch, and that’s what the Saints have been spending a great deal of time on during their late afternoon workouts at Lynch Arena.
“Unfortunately the kids hate it, but it’s part of it,” said Zuckerman. “The only ones that are going to get something out of it is them. There’s nothing more frustrating than being in that third period and seeing that puck and knowing what they want to do with it, but just not having it in them to get it.
“It’s not their fault. They have to go out there every other shift -- 15-minute periods -- and grind against other teams that come out with three lines plus. It’s going to be up to them to push themselves to get there.”
Right now, the Saints are riding a 2-1 start with season-opening 8-3 and 4-1 victories over Ponaganset under their belts, and they could easily be 3-0 had they not let their last game, a 2-1 defeat to Rogers, slip away from them late in the contest.
“We played a very good game, but unfortunately, we gave it up at the end,” said Zuckerman. “That was a tough one to lose. We made a couple of mental mistakes near the end, and sometimes fatigue and tiredness can create those mental mistakes.”
With just 11 skaters on his roster, Zuckerman has been skating just two lines and sometimes throwing one of his four defensemen on his second line. But while he doesn’t have a quantity of skaters, he does have plenty of quality.
The Saints’ first line is arguably the finest underclassman line in the division in sophomore co-captain Ben Mello, who had eight goals and 11 assists as a freshman, sophomore Richard Vichroski, and freshman Mark Carrara. They have totaled six goals and seven assists.
The second line is a veteran unit with senior Craig Montecalvo and juniors Brendan Kelaghan and Jon Geller, and the Saints’ defensemen are senior co-captain and backchecking specialist Ty Karalis, junior Connor Harrington, and sophomores Chris Karalis and Tyler Duffy.
The goaltender is sophomore Max Lemay, who has been brilliant in his first season as a starter, turning away 72 of the 77 shots he faced.
“He’s our backbone,” added Zuckerman. “He’s done exactly what we hoped he could do. I told him at the beginning of the year, ‘Look how many guys you got. You’re going to see a lot of shots.’ He held the fort in the second game for us to win it, and he won the Rogers game for us, but we just let it slip out of our hands.”
Junior goaltender John Tougas, sophomore forward Annemarie Ottaviani, and freshman goalie Brandon Gribbin round out the team.
Despite being small in numbers, the Saints’ chief goal remains the same as it has every year -- make it to the postseason. Some folks outside the program have snickered at the Saints’ playoff hopes, but to Zuckerman and his team, their critics mean very little to them.
“ ‘They don’t have a lot of players, they’re going to be hurting,’ ” remarked Zuckerman. “It’s fine. We have the talent (to make the playoffs), but we’re going to stay under the radar, and like I told the kids, if you win the games you’re supposed to win and steal a couple of upsets, you’ll be sitting pretty toward the end of the year.”
Zuckerman has done some scoreboard watching during the past month and he sees a wide-open Division II with two or three heavy favorites, but a lot of teams that will be jockeying for one of the eight playoff spots.
“There’s a lot of parity and there are going to be a couple of teams that just miss the playoffs this year by one or two points,” he offered. “It’s the way it should be. Anybody in this league can beat anybody on any given night. You just have to go out there and play the game.”