It’s not the numbers that have James Blanchfield’s coach excited about what’s to come.
Though, viewed from different angles, the numbers are already looking pretty good for the sophomore goalie for Niskayuna/Schenectady’s hockey team.
What gets first-year coach Sean O’Connell excited is how Blanchfield prepares for games.
“He’s a thinker,” O’Connell said. “So he thinks about, ‘How did I play this week, how did I play this game?’ And he thinks about the areas of his game he would like to work on. He comes to practice the following week, and you’ll see him focused on those things. We also have a goalie coach, Brian McDonald, who’s here about once a week and works with James and some of the other goalies. In terms of his game, it only gets better every time I see him, and it’s because of his preparation and attention to detail.”
Blanchfield is 5-6-1 this season with a 4.36 goals-against average and a .853 save percentage. In league play, he is 4-3-0 with a 4.43 GAA and .862 save percentage.
These days in the Capital District High School Hockey League, it almost goes without saying that Shenendehowa and Division I state champion Saratoga Springs are going to be the top two teams in the league. Blanchfield and his teammates are making it look like the Niskayuna/Schenectady Mohawks are at least ready to be the best of everybody else.
Against the rest of the league, discounting Shen and Saratoga, Blanchfield’s numbers are impressive for a sophomore in his first year of varsity hockey. He’s 4-1-0 with a 2.72 GAA and .899 save percentage.
He said he got a shaky start to the season as the Mohawks traveled out of Section II for their first four games of the season, but he has been coming into his own as the season has progressed.
“I didn’t find the groove right away, I guess,” Blanchfield said. “It was hard to get the focus back, just transitioning to this new game — it’s almost a different game. It took me a few games, but then I really got into it.
“At the start of the season, I was just trying to focus on ... first, to get back to the basics as soon as the season opened up. Lateral movement, general technique. Lately, it’s been more about me trying to always have that puck-focus on every shot and tracking it in, control the rebound and track it out.”
After that start on the road, the Mohawks came home to open league play at the Schenectady County Recreational Facility against Shaker/Colonie. The Jets had beaten the Mohawks fairly soundly in a preseason meeting, but Niskayuna/Schenectady clicked and pulled out a 5-4 victory.
“That game changed a lot,” Blanchfield said. “That showed what we can do, and that we can bounce back from whatever adversity is facing us.”
Blanchfield made 33 saves in that win. The Mohawks won their next league game, as well, 3-1 over LaSalle, with Blanchfield stopping 25 of 26 shots.
Of course, it hasn’t been just a string of happy nights for Blanchfield or the Mohawks. They dropped a 5-0 decision to Saratoga last Friday and saw the game against Shenendehowa get away from them to the tune of 12-1 on Jan. 15.
Blanchfield said, though, that he moves on quickly after a rough game or a bad goal.
“I think that’s one of the big things about being a goalie that not everyone can do, just letting things go,” Blanchfield said. “It’s not that I don’t care if goals go in, it’s just that I realize I can’t stay focused on that. That’s in the past. It’s not going to bring it back.”
When, as a team, the Mohawks play with the defensive discipline O’Connell is asking for, they are tough to beat.
“One of the things we’ve tried to work on, as a team, is to cut off those lanes on the inside, right in front of the net, and making sure he can track it,” O’Connell said. “If he can see the puck, he’s going to stop it maybe 99 percent of the time.”
“In the zone, they’re great. Blocking passes to the front, that’s been huge,” Blanchfield said. “Preventing those one-timers has helped. I think the biggest thing to come together was how the defensemen are always backing me up. When there’s a scramble in front, they’re there to clear the guys out.”
The Mohawks have six games left, all in the league, including a Feb. 12 rematch with LaSalle on the road. They will travel to play Christian Brothers Academy Friday at 4:45 p.m. and will host Burnt Hills/Ballston Spa (a 3-1 winner over the Mohawks on Jan. 11) on Saturday night at 7:30.
Blanchfield said he hopes he and his teammates can close the season strong and make some noise in sectionals, maybe even surprise a few of those teams who are still learning how dangerous the Mohawks can be.
“It’s definitely some motivation,” Blanchfield said. “I know that in the past few years, teams haven’t really respected this team in any area. To be able to beat those guys, it’s a nice feeling.”