The last time the Chugiak boys hockey team was on the ice for a game prior to Wednesday, it was the day before Thanksgiving. The Mustangs blew out their rival Eagle River Wolves 12-0 to remain undefeated and firmly in first place in the Cook Inlet Conference standings.
Since then, the Mustangs were only able to get one practice due to the holiday break and had two games postponed as a result of recent snow storms.
They have been arguably the best prep hockey team in the state to start the 2022-2023 season and proved so again on Wednesday night when they defeated reigning Division I state champion Dimond 6-2 at Ben Beoke Ice Arena to improve to 9-0-1.
“Two-week break and we kept the undefeated streak alive, finally pumped in some goals, we gave 100 percent, got pucks deep, pucks on end, and won the hockey game,” senior forward Ajay Johnson said.
Chugiak head coach Rodney Wild believes sluggish play in the scoreless opening period was a reflection of how much the extended time off impacted the play of both teams on the ice.
“Both teams were a little ragged after the first 15 minutes,” Wild said. “When you’re not playing together for two weeks, it’s hard to come back right away and have that cohesiveness and chemistry.”
The Mustangs found themselves in unfamiliar territory after allowing Dimond to score the first goal of the game 12 seconds into the second period.
“It was the first time all year that we’ve had to come from behind,” Wild said. “We’ve always scored first, and tonight was the first night that we hadn’t.”
He said it was encouraging to see how his team responded after giving up that goal early in the second period by coming back and scoring a pair of goals that same period and four more in the third.
“We had one practice in the last two weeks but we definitely made the most of it,” junior defensemen Hunter Merrick said. “We came out there a little slow in the first, but in the second and third we finally found our stride and kept going.”
Johnson scored both of the team’s goals in the second and scored another in the third to record his first hat trick of the season.
“He had a rough start and he’ll tell you that and part of that was just some rust,” Wild said. “It was nice for him to have some success in the last two periods.”
The Mustangs played the Lynx in their second game of the season and while they avoided suffering their first loss, it went into overtime ended in a 2-2 tie.
“I thought we played well enough in that first game to win, their goalie played extremely well, she played well tonight but she played so well in that first game,” Wild said. “They played good team defense and didn’t give us a lot of secondary options.”
Both teams came into the game undefeated in the conference, but Chugiak was able to prove they’re the clear cream of the crop with the commanding victory.
“It feels nice to be the last undefeated team in the CIC,” Merrick said.
Keys to early success
Johnson credits the team’s incredible chemistry and strong practice habits for their strong start to the season.
“100 percent chemistry and we practice how we play,” Johnson said. “We practice hard and play harder. Half these guys on the team have been playing together since they were 8 and 10 years old. We just know where everyone is, we move the puck fast enough and then we just put them in the net.”
Wild admits that it can be hard at times to keep a bunch of 16- and 17-year-olds level headed amidst having a lot of success, this year’s team is doing a good job of not overlooking any opponent.
“We talk about mindset all the time whether you’re playing the best team in the league or the team that everyone is beating all the time, if you don’t prepare the same way every night, you’re going to get beat up at some point,” Wild said.
The team consists mostly of upperclassmen including seven seniors and five juniors to just three sophomores and three freshmen.
“We’re pretty resilient and we struggle to score sometimes but once we start scoring, it doesn’t stop,” Merrick said. “We just keep it going, keep the energy going on the bench, and everyone has to be a leader whether they’re a captain or not.
Both he and Johnson were voted team captains, which is an honor he takes a lot of pride in.
“I just love leading a group of guys that have all this energy in them and support everyone no matter what your position is -- whether you’re a first line guy, third line guy, everyone plays their best,” Merrick said.
Johnson is very confident in the ability of this year’s team to go the distance and doesn’t foresee them losing a game the rest of the season.
“The only competition we have that people are saying is Houston but we haven’t played them yet,” He said.
The Hawks are the reigning state champions at the Division II level and are also undefeated with a 13-0-1 record.
While they aren’t slated to play each other in the regular season, if Houston wins a second straight Division II title, the two juggernauts could cross paths in the postseason since the top team from the lower level bumps up for the Division I playoffs.
Houston lost both of their games against Division I competition when they moved up for the playoffs last year but are 4-0-1 against such opponents this year.
Another integral key to the Mustangs’ success has been their tremendous yet disciplined physicality.
“That has always been a characteristic of Chugiak hockey even before I took over 24 years ago,” Wild said. “You may not win but you’re going to have some bruises. Physical play is important for us to be successful. If we’re not physical, we’re not going to win.”