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Junior goalie Eric Dillner has been like a brick wall in net for the Hand boys’ ice hockey squad this season. Dillner is allowing an average of just 1.5 points per game for the Tigers, who have a record of 16-1-1 on the campaign. (File photo by Kelley Fryer/The Source | Buy This Photo)
Junior Tatum Fitzmaurice and the Tigers notched lopsided victories in all three of their games last week and are currently riding a six-game winning streak. (File photo by Kelley Fryer/The Source | Buy This Photo)
Junior John Gagliardi and the Hand boys’ ice hockey squad are playing some quality hockey down the stretch of the regular season and are about to embark on their postseason journey. (File photo by Kelley Fryer/The Source | Buy This Photo)
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There’s no doubt that the Hand boys’ ice hockey team is one of the top squads in the Division II ranks right now. The Tigers have been dominating the opposition all year and are sporting an overall record of 16-1-1 to go with a mark of 6-0-1 in divisional play heading into the last week of the regular season.
Head Coach Brian Gonsalves said that Hand is on a mission to win the Division II State Tournament and will settle for nothing less. Gonsalves and his athletes have adopted a simple, yet significant mantra this winter: Climb the mountain.
“We were a great team last year, and we knew we had the potential to do a lot of good things. The boys bought into this program when myself and the coaching staff took over,” said Gonsalves, who’s in his second year as head coach. “We got all the way to [Division III] state semifinals [last year], but lost to Sheehan 8-2. I tell the guys this year we’re climbing a mountain because, when you’re climbing a mountain, you are only looking up and moving up. That’s what we want. We don’t ever want to be going down.”
Hand claimed victory in all three of its matchups last week, winning each contest in convincing fashion. On Feb. 18, the Tigers netted an 8-2 home win against Hall-Southington at Northford Ice Pavilion. The next day, they skated to an 8-0 road victory over the East Haven co-op in an SCC/SWC Division II game at Patsy DiLungo Ice Rink. Hand finished off the week by posting a 6-0 road shutout versus Immaculate at Danbury Arena on Feb. 22. The Tigers have won six-straight games and are 9-0-1 in their last 10.
“We had a great week against some solid teams,” Gonsalves said. “[This] week will be our biggest test. We have to play North Haven and then [defending conference and state champion] Branford. While that game isn’t the end-all be-all, it will give us a good idea of where we’re at.”
Coach Gonsalves said that last year’s loss to Sheehan in states had a big effect on the Tigers and taught them about the importance of staying poised when confronted with adversity. A perfect example of that came back on Dec. 22, when Hand battled Mount St. Charles, a perennial Rhode Island powerhouse.
Hand came out sluggish and fell behind 2-0 in the first period, then faced a 3-1 deficit in the second. The Tigers hung tough and held Mount St. Charles scoreless during the third period, setting the stage for a comeback. Hand tied the game on last-second goal in regulation to force overtime, where junior Teddy Licari netted the game-winning score for a gritty 4-3 victory.
“Our guys kind of buckled early, just like we did in the state semifinals against Sheehan. The only difference was, this time we fought back and made it a game,” said Gonsalves. “I said to the guys at the start of the period, ‘You guys are in this. You guys fought to make this a game. Now go out there and play one more great period, and let’s see if we can steal a win.’”
Hand’s roster features a plethora of young players. One of the 24 athletes on the squad, 12 of them are underclassmen, including nine juniors. The Tigers will only be losing three seniors to graduation from this year’s team and should once again be a dangerous club next season.
Hand’s two biggest offensive weapons have been junior forwards Tatum Fitzmaurice and Joey DeAngelis. Fitzmaurice, who has 26 goals with 31 assists on the season, is leading the team alongside fellow captains Brendan Ryan, a senior forward; and John Gagliardi, a junior defenseman. DeAngelis is right behind Fitzmaurice on the stat sheet with 22 goals and 34 assists to his credit this year.
“Those two are special,” said Gonsalves of Fitzmaurice and DeAngelis. “Their work rate on the ice is off the charts, and they’ve got 106 of our team’s 277 total points. It shows just how dominant they’ve been, and I’m really happy they are a part of this team.”
Gonsalves has also been pleased with the performance of goaltender Eric Dillner. A junior, Dillner has a save percentage of 90 percent and is allowing an average of just 1.5 goals per game.
“Eric has been playing goalie since he was a freshman, and he’s become more than a kid who is stopping a puck in front of him,” Coach Gonsalves said. “He’s as hard of a worker as anyone on this team, and he’s arguably our most important player.”
Gagliardi and sophomore Kevin Sandor are anchoring the Tigers’ defensive corps this season. Gagliardi had four goals and 18 assists on the campaign. Sandor, an All-State Second Team selection last year, has scored four goals to go with 13 assists for Coach Gonsalves’s squad.
“For those guys to be contributing on offense as much as they do is huge for us,” said Gonsalves. “John is our veteran presence on the defense, and he really leads these guys by example. He’s very under the radar and doesn’t get the recognition he deserves, but he’s an anchor for us and a true leader. I can’t say enough about Kevin. He’s our most skilled defenseman, and he can make a big play happen in the blink of an eye.”
Hand will conclude the regular season by playing a pair of games versus divisional opponents at Northford Ice Pavilion this week. The Tigers are facing North Haven on Wednesday, Feb. 26 at 8 p.m. and will then take on Branford for their regular-season finale on Saturday, Feb. 29 at 7:30 p.m.
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