BAY ROBERTS, NL — Last season, the Tri Pen Osprey made it all the way to the league final, only to be swept by the St. John's Maple Leafs in four straight games.
Now back to take another shot at supremacy in the Newfoundland and Labrador Major Midget Hockey League (NLMMHL), the Osprey have all the ingredients coach Chris Peach feels the team needs to contend.
"We have a good mix of veteran guys, guys who've been around for a couple of years, and then we have a good fit of young guys that have come in and are starting to buy into what we as a coaching staff want — how we want to play," said the first-year head coach, a St. John's native who spent a decade playing professionally in Europe and North America and went on to play and coach in provincial senior hockey.
"It's taking a little bit of time, but I think for the most part we're improving every weekend. Every practice we get better and every weekend we get better. That's the ultimate goal at the end of the year — to be at the dance at the end of the year."
After 14 games in the 2017-18 regular season, the Osprey have four regulation wins, two overtime wins and a pair of overtime losses, good for 18 points and a third place position in the five-team league. They're five points behind the Maple Leafs for second place and 11 ahead of the fourth-place East Coast Blizzard.
As is the case with all clubs in the NLMMHL, the Osprey said so long to a few players in the off-season. Last season's leading scorer Liam Leonard of Clarenville moved on to the Maritime Junior A Hockey League, as did goalie Tristan Gray from Bonavista. And then there's Kyle Petten of Coley's Point, now a member of the Halifax Mooseheads in the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League.
However, there are several returning players set to pick up the slack this season, including Luke and Matthew Akerman, Kyle Tetford, Braedon Carlson, Jacob Evans and Matthew Brown, among others. Goaltender Riley Petten of Clarke's Beach, who split duties with Gray last season, is also back for 2017-18.
"That's a whole part of the process," said Peach. "You'll have your second or third-year guys that do stick around, and fortunately enough for us this year, we've got a little bit of a veteran team. That helps with the mix of our first-year players, rookies coming in and our veteran guys. It's a good combination to have both."
Among the new players on this year's team, forward David Hibbs has shown some early promise. The Bay Roberts native, who played prep school hockey in Nova Scotia last season, collected eight goals and five assists in the first 14 games to tie Luke Akerman for the team lead in points with 13. Reilly Mayne of Hopeall has also looked good, contributing eight points in 14 games.
In the crease, Petten is playing well so far, sporting a 3.00 goals-against-average and a .910 save percentage. Fellow goalie Matthew Chippett, getting his first bit of action with the Osprey this season, has also played well. His GAA is 2.83 and he has a stellar save percentage of .920. 14 games in, the pair split duties, with Petten appearing in eight games and Chippett six.
"Fortunately, we have a pretty good defence corps," said Peach. "All of our D-men are quality defencemen, so it's nice to have that luxury. Then on our back end we've got Riley Petten. He's a second-year goaltender that to me is one of the best in the league. And then we've come across young Matthew Chippett out of Clarenville. He's come in and done a fantastic job."
Peach considers his young group to be a fast team with good size up front. They take a defence-first approach to hockey with the goal of generating offensive through strong play in their own end.
The big story in the early goings of this season has been the outstanding play of the Western Kings in Corner Brook. The team is undefeated through 14 games and won all of those contests in regulation. The Kings have thus far outscored opponents by an astounding 74-24 margin.
While the Osprey have lost all four games against the Kings, three of those losses came with only a two-goal margin. In their most recent encounter Oct. 15, a 4-2 win for the Kings, the Osprey led by a 2-1 score early in the second period.
"They have kind of set the bar now for the rest of the league," said Peach. "We know they're the team to beat right now. We have matched up pretty well with them. We haven't beat them yet, but you know what? The season is still young. We have a lot to learn yet … And I think come the end of the season, we'll be right there. You don't have to win right now. You have to win in February and March. That's what we're gunning for."
The team plays most home games at the Bay Arena in Bay Roberts, though there are a few scheduled for the Danny Clear Community Centre in Harbour Grace as well. They'll be in Bay Roberts this Saturday night, Oct. 28, to face the Central Ice Pak and will play them again the next morning in Harbour Grace.
"We've got some great support from the community," Peach said. "Major midget hockey, it's a good product. It's the best kids on the island at that 15-16-year-old age group."