The Waterloo Black Hawks entered the 2019-20 United States Hockey League season with at least a few questions on the blue line.
Waterloo’s top three defensemen in terms of scoring, and top two in plus/minus moved on to college hockey after last season. During preseason, the Black Hawks allowed the most goals in the Western Conference while posting a 1-3-0-1 preseason record.
Now, those questions have been answered quickly during a perfect 6-0-0-0 start to the regular season in which Waterloo leads the USHL defensively, allowing just eight goals in six games. Waterloo, who also returned goalie Logan Stein, is the only team remaining in the USHL with 10 goals or fewer allowed.
“Obviously, preseason, we had a little bit of a rocky start,” said Ethan Szmagaj, an 18-year-old from Canton, Michigan, who is the team’s top returning defenseman in terms of points and plus/minus. “I think once we started dialing it in at Pittsburgh — we got together, had a talk and set a [defensive] standard for each game for goals as a group of guys — from that, we’ve been really solid in the past six games.
“We’re really excited and we’re ready to push forward.”
The Black Hawks allowed three goals total while pulling out a pair of overtime victories during the season-opening USHL Fall Classic in the Pittsburgh suburb of Cranberry Township. The defense has been even more stingy since. The last four games include a 1-0 victory and two more outings in which Waterloo allowed one goal each.
Szmagaj, a University of Michigan commit, said the defensive corps sets collective goals on measurables such as shots on goal it produces on the offensive end and limiting stick infractions by being in proper position when defending in the corners.
Waterloo has been whistled for the second-fewest penalty minutes in the USHL and has yet to give up a power-play goal in 27 attempts. The Black Hawks have actually outscored opponents while on the penalty kill with a pair of short-handed goals.
“We have a group back there that has all played junior hockey,” Waterloo Black Hawks head coach P.K. O’Handley said. “They’ve been good in the beginning.”
O’Handley said the defensive corps has gotten help from offensive possession as it makes the transition from being led by veterans Hank Sorensen, Mason Palmer and James Marooney a year ago. Sorensen and Palmer both now are freshman at Northern Michigan University, and Palmer is in his first year at Ohio State University.
“We’ve been able to defend reasonably well,” O’Handley said. “It’s still a work in progress there, but generally speaking, I think our group is fairly committed to that.
“It is a six-person job to defend. I think the other side of it that maybe gets lost sometimes is that you want to control the puck. Early on, we’ve been able to control the puck and hopefully that can continue in our favor.”
Mason Reiners, an 18-year-old from Edina, Minnesota, who joined the Black Hawks following the completion of his 2018-19 state championship high school campaign, leads the unit at plus-eight.
Brehdan Engum, a 19-year-old from Burnsville, Minnesota, was added to the Black Hawks early last season in a trade with the Central Illinois Flying Aces. The University of Massachusetts-Lowell commit leads the defensemen with three points, including two assists on the power play.
Aaron Bohlinger is the only Waterloo defenseman with a pair of goals. The 5-foot-9, 179-pound, 19-year-old from Walden, New York, played a full season of junior hockey last year after splitting a season between the NAHL’s Philadelphia Rebels and Omaha AAA Lancers the year prior.
“We’re thrilled he came back,” O’Handley said.
North Dakota commit Luke Bast has been a solid addition as well. Bast has already contributed two assists in his first season of USHL play.
Jacob Bengtsson and Nic Belpedio round out the unit. Belpedio, an 18-year-old from Skokie, Illinois, played 48 USHL games with the Muskegon Lumberjacks last season. Bengtsson is a returner from last year’s Black Hawks team.
Waterloo’s offense and defense will be tested as it embarks on a six-game road trip beginning Oct. 26. Included in that is a meeting with fellow undefeated and in-state rival Dubuque Fighting Saints, currently occupying first place in the Eastern Conference. Dubuque is the USHL’s second-most stingy team defensively allowing just 11 goals. The Black Hawks return home on Nov. 15.
Story from Red Line Editorial, Inc.
Photo courtesy of Hickling Images.