Bet­ter and bet­ter

Amherst Ram­blers want a health­ier and stronger se­cond half

The Amherst News - - FRONT PAGE - BY DARRELL COLE [email protected]­st­news.ca Twit­ter: @ADN­dar­rell

The Amherst Ram­blers want to get healthy and stronger in the new year.

If you told Jeff LeBlanc his hockey club would be firmly es­tab­lished in se­cond place at the Christ­mas break de­spite miss­ing the ma­jor­ity of his core play­ers to in­jury he would’ve ques­tioned your hockey knowl­edge.

But af­ter a pair of wins over the Camp­bell­ton Tigers and the Mi­ramichi Tim­ber­wolves to wrap up the pre-Christ­mas por­tion of the sched­ule, the Amherst CIBC Wood Gundy Ram­blers en­tered the break in se­cond place in the Eastlink South Di­vi­sion with a 19-7-2 record for 40 points – se­cond over­all in the league and nine points be­hind the di­vi­sion and league-lead­ing Yar­mouth Mariners.

“I’m re­ally happy with where we are at right now, things are very pos­i­tive when you con­sider all the turnover we had to start the sea­son and then the in­juries we had to deal with,” the Ram­blers coach and gen­eral man­ager said. “To start the sea­son I said I would’ve been happy if we were 5-5 and we went 8-2 and we’ve been play­ing very well since then as well.”

Af­ter los­ing key con­trib­u­tors Jor­dan King, Liam Con­rad, Brady Grif­fin-Hef­ford and Lu­cas Sang­ster to grad­u­a­tion, the Ram­blers added a num­ber of new­com­ers via the trade route in­clud­ing Nick Snow, Casey Fox, Alex Lafre­niere, Ai­dan McFar­land, Stephen Fox, Matt Wil­liams and Matt Green.

“When I look at all the guys we added over the sum­mer and have a tran­si­tion like we’ve had it’s tough to start the year. You’re look­ing for chem­istry and you’re re­ally not sure how well they’ll play to­gether,” LeBlanc said. “It came to­gether much more quickly than I thought it would and we could see early on that we have some­thing spe­cial go­ing on here the way the boys have come to­gether as a team and worked through some ad­ver­sity.”

So far this sea­son, LeBlanc said, the team has one player with a bro­ken hand, two with a sep­a­rated shoul­der, two ma­jor con­cus­sions, one torn ACL and one sprained MCL for guys who have missed more than four games.

“It’s just amaz­ing to have those kinds of in­juries and to still have the record we have. It’s a tes­ta­ment to the guys step­ping up,” LeBlanc said. “We’ve adopted the ‘Next Man Up’ slo­gan in the dress­ing room be­cause that’s what’s hap­pened so far this sea­son. One man goes down to in­jury and the next man steps up.”

With the num­ber of in­juries, LeBlanc said, it has al­lowed oth­ers to step into key roles. Alex Wyn­ter, who was a healthy scratch the first few games of the sea­son, has be­come one of the club’s top de­fence­man – earn­ing a try­out with Canada East – while oth­ers like Caleb Rich, Casey Fox, Lafre­niere, Cole Waugh, Cole Dar­rach and Stephen Fox have clicked of­fen­sively. Even when Matt Wil­liams went down to in­jury for sev­eral games in De­cem­ber, Joel Goguen stepped in and played strong through a piv­otal stretch of games.

Head­ing into the se­cond half of the sea­son, be­gin­ning Jan. 3 in New Glas­gow against the Weeks Crush­ers, LeBlanc said his team’s fo­cus will be to get a full lineup in place for the first time since open­ing night.

LeBlanc said ev­ery­one, with the ex­cep­tion of Colton McKenna, should be back for Jan. 3 or within a week or two af­ter. McKenna should re­turn at the end of the month.

Com­ing up al­most im­me­di­ately af­ter the start of the se­cond half is the MHL’s trad­ing dead­line on Jan. 10. LeBlanc isn’t rul­ing out mak­ing some moves at the dead­line, con­sid­er­ing the club is host­ing the Fred Page Cup in May, but added he wouldn’t hes­i­tate to the take the team he has now to that tour­na­ment be­cause of the re­silience they’ve shown and the chem­istry that ex­ists on the ice and in the dress­ing room.

Still, if he can make a move that puts the team closer to win­ning the di­vi­sion, the league and the Fred Page Cup cham­pi­onship, he’ll do it.

“I’ve said ev­ery day that my goal is to im­prove and make this team bet­ter, whether through a trade, com­mu­nity event or spon­sor­ship. The trade dead­line is no ex­cep­tion. We’re try­ing to make this team into a Fred Page Cup cal­i­bre team and we don’t want to just host, we want to win,” he said. “That’s the bot­tom line and we’re go­ing to do what­ever we can be­tween now and Jan. 10 to see what’s there.”

DAVE MATHIESON/FILE PHO­TOS

Alex Lafre­niere of the Amherst CIBC Wood Gundy Ram­blers al­ways works hard re­gard­less which Mar­itime Ju­nior Hockey League team he plays against. The Ram­blers en­tered the Christ­mas break in se­cond place in the MHL’s Eastlink South Di­vi­sion while Lafre­niere leads the team in scor­ing with 33 points.

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