NEW HAVEN - Midway through the first period of its Division II semifinal game with Branford, the WMRP ice hockey team’s student section was hit with jeers from the Hornets’ students.
“We can’t hear you!” shouted the Hornets’ sizable crowd, mostly decked in all black, at the WMRP students. And on the ice, it was Branford making most of the noise Tuesday night at Yale University’s Ingalls Rink.
The Hornets took a commanding three-goal lead early in the second period and with three more goals in the third, cruised to a 6-1 triumph over WMRP in a victory that eliminated the Eagles for their second loss in the state semifinals in the last three years.
“[Branford] is a very good team,” Eagles head coach Dennis Tulimieri said. “They just had a little more jump in their step tonight. They had a big push and really outplayed us. It wasn’t for a lack of effort. Our guys tried real hard and did all the things we asked them to do, but it didn’t quite come out on the ice tonight.”
Despite a 19-19 stalemate in shots on goal through two periods, it was the Hornets who cashed in on their opportunities, as Jack Manware netted two goals - one in each of the first two period - and David Engstrom sniped in another for a 3-0 lead at the 9:38 mark of the second.
In the first period, WMRP goalie Jake Peckrul survived a barrage of Branford shots on goal, as the Hornets bested the Eagles in the category 4-1 across the first few minutes.
But WMRP (17-6) bounced back, as Jack Healy stole the puck with a little more than five minutes left, but as he sliced near the goal, his shot went high and was deflected by Branford goalie Jared Yakimoff.
After a line change, Manware chopped in a goal less than two minutes later, as his shot ricocheted off Peckrul’s left knee into the back-left corner of the net at the 3:40 mark.
With less than 30 seconds left in the first, an attempt to get the puck out of the defensive zone by Branford (17-3-3) hit Eagles junior Trevor Piecewicz in the back, but despite getting off a clean look at the net after gaining possession, his shot was blocked by Yakimoff.
In the second period, Manware split a pair of Eagles defenders before netting a breakaway goal after the Hornets won a faceoff at the other end of the ice.
The second goal shrunk WMRP’s shoulders, and after Engstrom’s goal early in the second brought it to a 3-0 deficit, it brought morale down even further.
Eagles senior Ben Mroczka answered back by lasering in an untouched, unassisted goal with five minutes remaining in the second period.
But too many of WMRP’s decent looks at the net went wide or were shaken off by Yakimoff - who finished with 31 saves. And Yakimoff was helped with several solid plays by Branford’s defenders - including Piecewicz’s shot with less than two minutes left in the second, which was blocked by a diving Engstrom that induced a debilitated, frustrated look from Piecewicz toward the ceiling of the arena.
“They make it very difficult to penetrate and get the puck to the net and get people to the net. That’s a credit to them,” Tulimieri said. “It’s their whole defensive system. Their forwards always come back [quickly]. How many times on their back-check did they pick the puck off on us? They had a ton of steals. They played a good game, and our guys gave it everything they had. You can’t ask for more.”
The Eagles couldn’t sustain the same offensive output racked up by the Hornets, who put the game away on a power-play goal early in the third.
After WMRP freshman Brody Davidson was assessed a penalty with a little more than 14 minutes remaining, Hornets junior Blake Kustra powered in a clean goal less than a minute later. Chris Donadio (8:59 mark) and Max Bunton (3:05) then polished off the victory with goals in the third.
Despite racking up more shots on goal, 34-23, the Eagles could not penetrate Yakimoff’s goaltending or the defensive zone of Branford, which will face No. 6 Glastonbury (14-7-2) in the state championship game Monday night.
Zack Carpenter can be reached at (860) 973-1811 or firstname.lastname@example.org
NO. 4 BRANFORD 6, NO. 9 WMRP 1
At Ingalls Rink, Yale, Division II semifinals
WMRP 0 1 0 - 1
Branford 1 2 3 - 6
Goals: Mroczka (W), Manware 2 (B), Engstrom (B), Kustra (B), Donadio (B), Bunton (B).
Assists: Donadio (B), Lionetti (B), Bunton (B), Rivera (B), Manware (B), Engstram (B)
Saves: Peckrul 19 (W), Yakimoff 31 (B).
Records: WMRP 17-6, Branford 17-3-3.