NEW HAVEN - All season long, the WMRP (Wethersfield, Middletown, Rocky Hill and Plainville) ice hockey team prided itself on being able to take the play to its opponents and pin them in their own zone.
Unfortunately, in Thursday’s 1-0 Division III semifinal loss to Hall-Southington, the Eagles could not get that part of their game going, leading to their elimination from the tournament.
“We didn’t get really any sustained pressure in their end, which we’re pretty good at,” WMRP coach Dennis Tulimieri said Thursday. “You didn’t see it [Thursday] but we’re pretty good at it. That kind of tells the story of the game. We didn’t generate enough offense.”
Despite not having much time in the offensive zone, the Eagles tied the Warrior-Knights in shots at seven through the first period, but the second period featured a much wider shot margin. Hall-Southington piled up 19 shots to WMRP’s one in the middle frame.
But the score remained 0-0 into the second intermission, mostly thanks to WMRP goalie Stephen Vaughan. The senior netminder posted 30 saves on 31 shots in the game, including a perfect save percentage in the pressure-filled second period.
“He came up big at the times that we did get pressure on him,” Tulimieri said. “Stevie’s come up big once in a while. He had seven shutouts this year, so you know he’s come up pretty big for us on occasion when we weren’t playing our best. He did it [Thursday] in a big moment.
“I wouldn’t say that’s what I expect from Stevie, but I’m not surprised by it. He has it in him and he showed it [Thursday].”
In the seven games that Vaughan held the opposing team to a goose egg on the scoreboard, the Eagles scored 37 goals, including their first-round 6-0 tournament victory over Eastern CT.
Entering the tournament, shutouts were on Vaughan’s and WMRP’s minds.
“Right before the first game of the tournament, my assistant coach pulled me aside and said, ‘If you get four shutouts, you’re a state champion,’” Vaughan said. “So, every game in the playoffs, I just went out there and tried to do the best I can to bring home that banner.”
He certainly did all he could, especially in that second period dominated by Hall-Southington. Even the goal that got past him was a fluky one, as a pass across the crease by a Hall-Southington player deflected off of an Eagles defender and into the net.
“It’s tough, especially when we can’t get the puck out,” Vaughan said about having to face as much pressure as he did in the second. “It forces us to ice the puck and take the defensive draw in our own zone. It’s a little tiring after a little while.”
After surviving the Hall-Southington onslaught in the second, the Eagles came out in the third period with the energy they had been hoping for in the previous two frames.
Recalling it after the game, Tulimieri had a very simple message for his team in the second intermission, as the game was still knotted at zero.
“This is our opportunity,” he said. “This is where we do it.”
“We’ve always done well at coming back and that’s what we did in that third period,” Tulimieri added. “We came back strong.”
But, despite the increased energy from the Eagles, the Warrior-Knights’ goal stood and they punched their ticket to the title game, while sending WMRP home.
The loss was not easy to take for the Eagles, but the bonds they formed throughout the season will act as a small consolation.
“It’s hard to make it hurt less. You can’t make it hurt less,” Tulimieri said. “Time does heal this kind of a wound, but what I told them is I wish I could have done more for them as a coach, [and] I wish, in some way or another, we could have continued on playing.
“But I’m so very proud of them. They came together as a team and we’re really family. We’ll always be family. [I told them], ‘Look around this locker room. These are the guys you’ll always know.’”
Josh Kestenbaum can be reached at 860-973-1811 or jkestenbaum@central ctcommunications.com On Twitter: @K_baum30