ORONO, Maine — The last time the Orono High School Red Riots hockey team qualified for the Eastern Maine Class B playoffs was 2007, and the Riots were upset by Presque Isle in the championship game.
The Riots struggled to an 0-4-1 start this season, but the Riots have bounced back with four wins in their last six games including three in a row.
One of the primary keys to the resurgence has been coach Greg Hirsch and his staff deciding to move junior defenseman Conor McKaig to right wing and put him on the first line with center Matt Cloutier and left wing Dan Perry.
“We had to do something to create more offense,” said Hirsch. “After taking a couple of games to get used to each other, they have created a lot of scoring opportunities for us. They’ve been a big plus.”
“We now have a true first line with great speed. They win a lot of puck battles and get the puck to each other. They’ll also one-touch the puck,” added Hirsch, who noted that they have scored nine goals in six games together.
“Conor is fast and intense. He also brings an ability to win one-on-one battles and keep possession of the puck,” said Hirsch. “Matt has incredible speed and great hands. He has really matured as a player when it comes to seeing the ice. Dan is our best two-way forward. He’s a great stick-handler and he’s strong on the puck.”
“It’s been a good change from defense,” said McKaig, who is a junior. “I’m adapting. I used to play forward for the Maine Freeze a few years ago. And I’m on a line with two of my best friends.”
Hirsch said he was able to make the move because his defense corps, featuring juniors Zac Williams, Andrew Holt and Corey Danielson, is reliable and experienced.
“They were all regulars last year, so I didn’t think moving him up would have too much impact on our defense, although Conor is a great defenseman,” said Hirsch.
Hirsch also moved senior forward Tyler Higgins back to defense to shore up the depth.
McKaig and Hirsch said the team has a fierce desire to make the playoffs.
“That’s been a big goal of ours since my freshman year,” said McKaig.
“The work ethic has been phenomenal,” said Hirsch. “The guys are focused. They won’t be satisfied if they don’t make the playoffs. And they want a good seeding, so they’ll have an opportunity to move on.”
Two of the players who had been used on the top line with Cloutier and Perry were Viktor Domberg and Mike Fowler and they have been joined on a productive second line by Casey Michaud.
“They have all come together [well],” said Hirsch, who also has received steady play from junior goalie Mike Brown, who made 38 saves in Wednesday’s 2-1 win over Hampden Academy.
“He has really started to step up his game,” said Hirsch.
Hirsch said his team was pressing early and lost a lot of close games. Three were by two goals or less.
“But we’ve turned the corner a little bit and are turning those close losses into wins,” said Hirsch.
The EM Class B-leading Brewer Witches are 12-1 after Saturday’s 6-4 win over their closest competitor, Messalonskee High School of Oakland.
Messalonskee is 10-2 and both losses were two-goal setbacks to Brewer.
The Witches have been impressed by the Eagles.
“They’re definitely a very, very good team,” said Brewer senior left wing Jacob Chapman. “They’re very disciplined, too.”
“They definitely scared us like the first time we played them,” said senior right wing Tyler White. “I think they get tired after one or two periods and they start to take penalties, so we’re able to get back in the game on the power play.”