After a tough start, the 18U AAA team headed into 2023 having won 19 of 20 games thanks to a time-tested formula.
Each season brings its own challenges, even for an experienced group such as the Jr. Ducks 18U AAA team.
The 18s returned several members from a team that made a run to the 2022 USA Hockey Youth Nationals yet they struggled to a 1-4 start this past fall.
"Obviously, you don't want to lose, but sometimes that's what it takes to wake players up," coach August Aiken said.
Once the alarm went off, the 18s began to pull it together by practicing the fundamentals that Aiken preaches - particularly team defense and ice awareness. As a result, the 18s have won 19 of 20 games heading into 2023 and find themselves atop their divisions in CAHA and the Tier 1 Elite Hockey League.
"I've been happy with how we're playing now," Aiken said. "We have guys contributing all through the lineup.
"The biggest improvement has been on the defensive side. Our forwards are coming back and supporting the D and reloading through the center of the ice. We're not puck watching. Guys have their heads on a swivel.
"Our ice awareness has improved a lot. We realize the players without the puck can be the most dangerous if they find openings in our zone."
The 18s are 9-0 in CAHA play and have outscored foes by a combined 52-10. They're 9-1 in Tier 1 play and have a plus-25 goal differential (42-17).
Defensive play has been the common theme in both leagues as the Jr. Ducks have built a 24-6 record. And the fulcrums of that have been the goaltending tag team of Owen Crudale and Micah Kawai. Both sit at or near the top of stat leaders in both leagues.
In Tier 1 play, Crudale has allowed just six goals in five games while building a .954 save percentage. Kawai also has a sub-2.00 goals-against average and a .921 save percentage.
The offense has plenty of balance, too. Six players are scoring at a point-per-game clip or better - Ameen Ghosheh, Makar Klochkov, Luke Anthony, Rex Baren, Oliver Miller and Brock Devlin.
"The run (at the end of 2022) shows the resilience of this team," Aiken said. "We have a lot of guys back from last year's team, and they had a long road at Districts to qualify for Nationals.
"This season, we've faced a number of games in the Tier 1 league where we've had to battle back, almost playoff-style games where there's not a lot of room to go with the puck."
Case in point was the final game of 2022, when the Jr. Ducks trailed a big, physical Milwaukee Jr. Admirals team 1-0 going into the third period. They scored twice in the final 7 and a half minutes to pull out a win against a team that was two points behind them in the standings.
With the CAHA State Tournament and the Tier 1 playoffs around the corner in February, the 18s are determined to make another push to return to Nationals.