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Oak Park, 11/18/12--Oak Park River Forest's Brian Cassidy battles Sandburg's Alex Howey for the puck. Oak Park River Forest High School hosted Sandburg HIgh School in boys hockey Sunday evening

Sandburg might have the deepest, most talented boys hockey team in the state this season, but the Eagles also have a troubling issue that worries coach Matt McCurrie.

The Eagles (24-4-2) have a habit of playing too passively against teams they’re favored to beat and it’s already cost them a couple of games – with Sunday night’s 5-4 home loss to Naperville North being the latest example. It was Sandburg’s second loss in three games against the Huskies this season and again came as the result of a mental letdown that led to Naperville North scoring four times in the second period.

“The problem that we have right now is that we’re such a skilled team ... it’s a matter of trying to keep them down to earth,” McCurrie said. “That’s difficult with so much skill. It’s been a challenge to get them in line and focus for every game that we play.”

McCurrie is also fed up with just talking about it. So, each time the Eagles lose a period against a team they should handle, their skates get replaced by gym shoes after the game.

“If we don’t win a period against a [lesser] team, we have to run,” said Sandburg senior defenseman Connor Tietz, the Eagles’ captain. “We have to keep all of our equipment on, too. We run around the rink 10 minutes for every period that we don’t win.”

Until Sunday night, it appeared to be working.

“Lately, it’s been getting better,” Tietz said. “[The trend] definitely needs to change. We’ve talked about it and the coaches have talked to us about it. They’ve called us out on it.”

It’s because McCurrie feels this team is too skilled to risk falling asleep at the wheel.

“We’ve got a lot of seniors, so this is a big year,” McCurrie said. “If they’re going to do anything, this is the season to do it.”

Sandburg is good on the blue line, has strong goaltending and the forward lines all pose a threat. The Eagles also have one of the best lines in the state — which is centered by all-state senior Eric Saulters and flanked by highly-skilled identical twins Adam and Alex Howey.

This is the first season the Howeys are playing for their high school team, after starring for a AAA program previously. Considering that Sandburg made it to the Elite Eight round of the playoffs a year ago, with just one senior, the addition of the Howeys has made the Eagles a true power.

Sandburg has beaten perennial heavyweight New Trier Green twice and has also downed Providence, a big rival that is usually one of the south suburbs’ best programs. Then there are the games that weren’t as impressive.

“We play down to our competition when we play a weaker team,” McCurrie said. “We don’t dominate the ice like we should. We’re trying to convince these boys that when it comes time for the playoffs, you can’t relax. If you play like that in the playoffs, they are going to beat you.”

Sandburg can’t afford to let that happen this season, which holds so much potential. The Eagles have their sights set on a state championship, but must start playing like champions in every game.

“We have the skill to do it and we have the coaching,” said David Christel, a senior center and the assistant captain. “We just need to have the confidence to get there.”

Not to mention the running shoes.

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