By BRIAN JENNINGS
The Warrior-Knight ice hockey team has been to the Division III tournament for the past five years under head coach Brian Cannon, but the co-op still hasn’t been able to advance past the quarterfinals. The team will take to the ice on Dec. 21 to take another shot.
“I don’t know how much of it is us and how much of it is them,” said Cannon. “We’ve had enough horses to compete in the upper end of Division III. We’ve done our best to try to get them to play as a cohesive group with varying success from shift to shift, game to game, and season to season.”
However, Cannon said that he fully expects not only to make the Division III tournament for a sixth-straight season, but also to make some noise in it as well.
“I’m not going to call us the team to beat because we have no idea what anyone else looks like,” said Cannon. “But I think that we should be able to do it.”
A breakout style of offense was instituted into the playbook last year, but the team had a hard time adjusting and transitioning from defense to a fast break up the ice. However, executing and utilizing speed to their advantage this season is what Cannon said will be key to making a deep run throughout the postseason.
“We need to be responsible and solid in our defensive zone,” the coach said. “We need to be able to get the puck out of the zone and down the ice, at least in the hands of our forwards. Even if it’s just into space, we’re going to turn it into a footrace and win it nine times out of 10 to generate chances. We’re fast up front and faster than we’ve been.”
Hall-Southington finished at 12-7 overall last year and placed third in the CCC South with a 7-5 divisional record behind EO Smith-Tolland-Windham and Avon-Farmington-Windsor.
The Warrior Knights qualified for the CCC South tournament for the first time since 2014—entering as the third seed—but were shut out, 6-0, at No. 2 Avon-Farmington-Windsor in the semifinals. Avon-Farmington-Windsor went on to claim the CCC South title with a 5-2 victory over top-seeded EO Smith-Tolland-Windham.
Hall-Southington entered the Division III tournament as the fourth seed and advanced to the quarterfinals by defeating No.13 Joel Barlow by a goal, 4-3, at home in the first round. However, the Warrior Knights fell short, 5-2, to No. 5 Westhill-Stamford at the Edward L. Bennett Rink in West Haven, eliminated from the state tournament by the Vikings for the second-straight year.
“I think we’ve proven that we should be competitive in the tournament every year,” said Cannon. “We were a couple of mistakes short of being on the other side of that Westhill-Stamford game. I think they were very surprised with what they ran into with us. I don’t think they had any idea they were in for the fight that they got.”
Hall-Southington was up on Westhill Stamford early in the game, but gave up two goals with about a second and a half left in the first period and four tenths of a second left in the second period.
“It was awful,” the coach said. “They were just the dumbest and most unnecessary turnover-type goals that we could have made at the absolute worst time.”
Westhill-Stamford eventually went on to win their first-ever CIAC Division III title after four previous appearances in the championship game, defeating No. 3 Shelton-Staples-Weston by a goal, 5-4.
“If we could have gotten by them, we might have been able to go,” said Cannon. “I knew in the spring that when they put that team together and left them in Division III, I knew that they were going to win the whole thing, six months before the season started.”
Westhill-Stamford and Shelton-Staples-Weston have since moved up to Division II.
Hall-Southington lost seven seniors to graduation, including team captains Jared Florian, Kevin Carr, Kyler Cubbage, and Paul Gambardella, along with Caelan Booth and Jack Rivers. Florian was the team’s leading goal scorer, finishing the season with 30 goals.
Returning forwards include seniors Eric Bienstock, Jeremy Fortin, Jacob Herz, and Dusty Kilgore; juniors Anthony Abbatiello, Miles Aronow, Will Carpenter, Graham Kennedy, and Jacob Mohr; and sophomore Kent Silva.
Returning defensemen include senior Colby Glidden; juniors Brendan Moore, Richard Mitchell, and Drew Booth; and sophomore Chris Gambardella. Booth only played in four games last year after sustaining an injury that sidelined him for the remainder of the season.
Glidden is currently out with an injury, but should return sometime between early and mid-January. Mitchell will fill in for Glidden as a defenseman for the time being, and then will either remain a defenseman or be moved up to forward once Glidden returns.
The only returning goalie for the Warrior Knights this season will be junior Zach Monti. Juniors Adam Faust and Harrison Freda split varsity time with Monti in front of the net last year, but will not be returning to the team this season. However, Monti will have some help from seniors Griffin Pisko and Matt Carlson. Carlson played on the team two years ago, before transferring to St. Paul Catholic in Bristol.
Other new additions include sophomores Michael DiPietro (forward), Sam Kerrigan (forward), Sam Kursman (defenseman), Michael Kwok (defenseman), Tyler Matukaitis (forward), Ethan Penn (defenseman), and Nate Zmarlicki (forward); and freshmen Christian Mohr (forward) and Mason Woods (forward).
Team captains have not been announced yet.
Aside from their speed, Cannon said that the team also has a lot of depth all the way around, which will carry into next season as well.
“We have a decent group of returning players and new players that have come in,” said Cannon. “The low end of the depth chart is made up of viable players. The youngest kids that have come in are still kids that could replace anyone at the next tier at any given time.”
Other than clearing the defensive zone, physicality is another major aspect that Cannon said he wants to see his team improve before the start of the regular season.
“As the younger kids get comfortable or realize that they have the ability to be physical, they won’t shy away from contact,” the coach said. “In order for us to utilize our skills, we need to take physical situations and be able to win them consistently to get the puck going in the right direction.”
Cannon is entering his seventh year as the head coach of the team.
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