By John Goralski
Bolton-Coventry-Rockville (BCR) hockey coaches were forced to call a timeout with 11:23 remaining in the CCC South championship game.
Kevin Cop had given Hall-Southington the lead in the waning minutes of the opening period. Will Amenebar had just pushed the lead to 2-0, so for the second time in three days the upstart division III co-op was forcing a division II team to scramble in the final period.
This was not the way that the conference championship was supposed to play out.
“Whenever you have a one-game deal like this, anything can happen,” said Hall-Southington coach Brian Cannon. “It really comes down to preparedness, focus, and circumstances. On any given night, any of these teams can beat the other one. I really give our guys credit.”
Of course, the hardened fans might have seen a small chink in the armor of the Warrior-Knights. While BCR coaches scrambled to set their offense in motion, Hall-Southington players were gasping for breath. With regular season reschedules and two conference tournament games, the Warrior-Knights were battling their fifth opponent in seven days.
BCR rebounded with five goals down the stretch to win the conference title, but Cannon was still smiling at the end of the contest. One thing was certain, Hall-Southington is prepared for postseason play.
In the last week of the season, they played a top D-III team to an overtime tie and ran another D-III team out of the building. Those games sandwiched a loss to D-II rival Newington, but Hall-Southington won the rematch in the first round of the conference tournament. It was the first time in years that the Warrior-Knights reached the conference finals, and that has Cannon excited about the postseason. The loss in the conference finale didn’t change his opinion.
“I don’t think we’re going to run into any teams as good as BCR or Newington in our tournament,” said Cannon. “Of course, we don’t really get to see too many of these teams in the regular season, so we really don’t know how they play or what they have for personnel. The fact that we were able to compete strongly against Newington and BCR makes me like our chances going into the tournament, but it’s a one-game deal. All we have to do is come in a little flat or make some mistakes, and our season will be over.”
The Knights are good enough to win, and that was proven in the team’s first round upset in the conference tournament. Newing-ton battled to a scoreless tie after one period. Newington capitalized on a shift change to score a breakaway goal in the second period, but the locals rebounded with two goals down the stretch.
Jim Nardi scored a slapshot from the blue line to tie the game at the end of the second period, and Will Amenebar scored the game winner off a perfect center pass from Cody Backus behind the net. Three days after suffering a regular season loss to Newington, Hall-Southington returned the favor with a 2-1 win.
“I was very worried that if they scored first it would put a knife in our tire,” said Cannon. “I thought it would take the air out of us, and we’d slump, but it didn’t. Newington really got a jump for a shift or two, and I thought, ‘Oh, no. Here it comes,’ but it didn’t.”
That was because Hall-Southington’s defense has finally found its stride. Brian Mahon has played almost every shift on defense. A solid core of defenders have shuffled into the other position, and the offensive skaters are coming back to help. As the final line of defense, Erich Bender corralled 154 saves over five games, and the Warrior-Knights are finally clicking.
“We gave it away at the end of the game, but Bender really held us in early,” Cannon said about the championship loss. “They were getting a lot of opportunities and a lot of shots off. To our credit, we were keeping most of them to off-angle shots, and that’s a good thing. B-C-R was buzzing. They were moving fast, but Bender played well for us.”
More importantly, Hall-Southington’s legs have held up during their toughest challenge of the season.
“I was really worried about them gassing out in the middle of the game or in the third period, but I think their legs held up pretty well,” Cannon said after the Newington win. “I think it’s been a fun week because our kids haven’t had to go out and practice. We only had practice one time, and we’re going to give them tomorrow off to get a little bit of sleep and some rest.”
Now comes the fun part.
Jarod Florian and Mahon scored in the first period to give the Warrior-Knights a 2-1 lead, but Housatonic-Northwestern-Wamogo regained the lead with a pair of second period goals.
On Sunday, March 2, Hall-Southington kicked off their final week of the regular season with a hard-fought rescheduled contest at home, but it took a late goal by Cop and a scoreless overtime to secure a 3-3 tie against the sixth ranked team in division III.
“I thought we gave the game away. We started out strong, but we went to sleep in the middle of the game,” said Cannon. “We really controlled the end of the third period and overtime. We just couldn’t find the back of the net.”
The following day, Newington took at 4-1 lead after two periods, and held on for a 5-2 win. Dylan Roach scored in the first period. Cop scored in the third, but it wasn’t enough to upset the Newington co-op.
Bender collected 24 saves, but Newington came away with the win.
“I really don’t think it was a 5-2 game even though that’s what it shows on the scoreboard,” said Cannon. “I really think it was about our lack of closing. We weren’t able to finish, but it was a very close game.”
On Wednesday, March 5, Hall-Southington scored in every period, built a 3-0 lead at the start of the third, and held on for a 4-2 win over Wethersfield.
Florian scored twice. Tim Panella and Dave Valentukonis scored one goal apiece. Mahon and Valentukonis both scored assists, and Bender earned the win with 40 saves. Hall-Southington finished the regular season with a 10-9-1 record.
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