Guilford boys’ ice hockey has been one of the hottest teams in Division II since the turn of the new year and, even in a recent defeat, the team went down swinging, while showing a lot of heart.
The Indians, who had won of seven of their last eight since a 2-2-1 start entering their Feb. 10 contest with North Branford, suffered an 8-5 loss to the host T-Birds at Northford Ice Pavilion. In the defeat, the resilient Indians trailed 2-0 in the first before tying the game at 2 after the period and were later down 7-3 early in the third, after which they cut that deficit in half with another pair of scores.
“They definitely fought back in the game and closed the gap on the scoring. Unfortunately, we made some mistakes and they capitalized on them,” said Head Coach Ralph Russo, whose club later edged North Haven 6-5 in overtime to move to 10-4-1. “We had the same amount of goals against them the first time we played, but we had better defensive play then. You have to credit North Branford for capitalizing. They made two shorthanded goals here. They went down and made the plays, yet I was happy to see us respond and keep the game close.”
Freshman forward John DeLucia earned a hat trick on the night versus North Branford, while senior tri-captain and forward Chris Cafiero added the other two goals for the Indians. Assisting on tallies were senior tri-captain forward Stephen Thibault (with 3), senior tri-captain defenseman Matt Clifford (2), DeLucia, and Cafiero. North Branford (10-3-1) outshot Guilford by a 32-27 margin with junior netminder Kyle Dwyer making 24 saves.
“We’ve been scoring goals right from the start of the season,” Russo said. “We had trouble in the Massachusetts [Military Heroes Fund Tournament] loss and gave up a two-goal lead. The game versus Hand [a 6-4 loss on Jan. 2], we had another two-goal lead and gave up some scores. As far as our goals against in this stretch, we’ve been able to hold teams to fewer goals. We’ve also played better team defense and kept the offense going. We just had some sloppy puck handling against North Branford and we paid for the mistakes.”
North Branford jumped out to its two-score advantage 5:18 into the first when senior Adam Burkle scored off a Brendan Dupuis assist at 4:06 before junior Brian McKee (from Burkle and senior Matt Chamberlain) found the back of the net 72 seconds later. Guilford then responded 50 ticks after that when Cafiero found DeLucia to get the Indians on the board. DeLucia capped off the period’s scoring 34 seconds before intermission with another tally off a Clifford assist.
The T-Birds then grabbed a 4-2 lead to open the second when McKee (from senior Dom Raccio and Burkle at 3:53) and Burkle (taking a helper from Dupuis at 8:34) lit the lamp. The Indians again cut the difference in half at 10:02 with DeLucia completing the hat trick from Clifford and Thibault. North Branford, though, went to the locker room with a 6-3 command following unassisted goals from McKee (at 13:58) and Burkle (14:32).
The hosts then went ahead by four right from the get-go in the final frame as Burkle took passes from Chamberlain and McKee to send the puck home at 2:59. Guilford had one more rally thanks to a pair of goals from Cafiero—the first at 4:20 from DeLucia and Thibault and then 54 seconds later from Thibault. However, North Branford put the game on ice with a goal from junior Nico Giatrelis (assisted by senior Tanner Opie) at 12:33.
Even after the league loss, Coach Russo was once again proud of his boys for displaying their true passion for the game and the work that comes along the road to success. Still, he wants the Indians to strive for even higher feats.
“They love coming to the rink and are committed to playing hockey. It helps make the workouts fun and you are there with people that enjoy being there and putting the work in,” Russo said. “I still want them to challenge themselves to get into another gear and get better. I believe they can still achieve a lot more with executing plays on the ice. It’s all about getting better.”
The Indians continued to show fight in a 6-5, come-from-behind win in overtime versus SCC/SWC Division II foe North Haven in a game that didn’t count towards league standings on Feb. 13. North Haven led 2-0 before Guilford repeated its feat from the North Branford game by evening things at 2 with two DeLucia scores. North Haven took 3-2, 4-3, and 5-4 leads, but Guilford again responded with equalizers each time with a goal from junior forward Rick Sandella, plus two by Cafiero to force the extra session. Cafiero then completed a hat trick with the game-winning goal in OT.
The Indians are primed for a conference tournament bid, but still have to play three more games counting towards the standings with North Haven at home on Thursday, Feb. 18, Hand at home on Saturday, Feb. 20, and Cheshire on the road on Wednesday, Feb. 24. Coach Russo explained that right now it’s all about getting over those three hurdles as the Indians look to continue playing great hockey entering the second season.
“It would be a big plus to make the conference tournament and right now we are in the running for one of those spots. Obviously, you don’t want a league loss like the one to North Branford, but the three ones left are very important to achieving that goal of the tournament,” said Russo. “We have to keep working as a team and want to feel confident in our ability to generate offense and have consistent defense.”
From the Sidelines
The Indians sits in third for the Division II State Tournament rankings after 15 games. North Branford is currently No. 1 in those same rankings.
Guilford is 9-4 against Division II teams thus far this season, having defeated Methuen, Massachusetts; Branford, Milford, East Haven, Fermi-Enfield-East Granby-Stafford, North Branford, Watertown-Pomperaug, New Milford, and North Haven.
Guilford is 5-3 in SCC/SWC Division II for fourth place in the standings. The top four teams qualify for the conference tournament with the semifinals on Thursday, March 3 at West Haven’s Bennett Rink. The final is on Saturday, March 5, also at Bennett Rink, at 4 p.m.