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Week 11: Centaurs finish 19-1; claim regular season Nutmeg Conference crown

It’s a pretty impressive accomplishment; 19 wins in 20 regular season games.

And it’s what the Woodstock Academy boys hockey team can be proud of this season after a 5-3 win over East Haven on Saturday night at the Jahn Ice Rink at Pomfret School.

“If you were to ask me how I envisioned (our record) at the beginning of the year, it certainly wasn’t 19-1,” said first-year head coach Mark Smolak. “We lost a lot of key players, three of our top four defensemen,  and we had three freshmen to replace them. We knew our offense was fine and now, I trust our defense. We had some kids who struggled with it at different times of the year, we worked with them, told them what we wanted and they’ve been able to execute it.”

Now, of course, comes the hard part- postseason play.

That begins for the Centaurs on Saturday when they host the Nutmeg Conference tournament championship game at the Jahn at 6 p.m.

Next Monday, the CIAC Division II state tournament begins.

But Smolak will enter this part of the season with a whole different mindset than what he began the year with.

“We can roll in three pairs of defensemen in the playoffs. There is no team that I can think of that is comfortable rolling in three pairs of defensive players and three (offensive) lines, I haven’t seen one.

Usually you stick to two of each and roll a third line occasionally but I feel comfortable with the three lines that we have,” the Woodstock Academy coach said.

The blue line of Noah Sampson (17 goals, 31 assists), Maxx Corradi (34,18) and Donnie Sousa (22,20) has been wildly successful.

But so have players on the two lines that follow them like Max Larkin (8, 12), Jayden Fuller (10,9), Jacob Jurnovoy (3,14) and Jared Neilsen (5,7) which means the Centaurs will give opponents plenty to think about.

There will be challenges.

The Centaurs had one on Saturday when the Yellowjackets (9-7-2) hung with them but, going into the postseason, it could have been just what the doctor ordered.

“It got us going. It got us excited,” said senior captain Jacob Jurnovoy. “We were kind of worried after they scored a couple of goals but we got it back.”

Larkin scored in the first period for the Centaurs but so did East Haven junior John D’Albero who scored all three of his team’s goals.

“My game plan coming in was ‘Defense, know where he is, stop ‘em.’ But, he got three by us because we couldn’t stop him. He’s a heck of a player. I’m glad we’re not going to see them in the first round (of the state playoffs),” Smolak said.

The Centaurs took command when Sousa, Jurnovoy and Corradi scored within 6 ½ minutes of each other in the second period.

“In terms of a full, complete game, we’re playing extremely well, playing Woodstock Academy hockey and doing more of what we want and are trying to do. Definitely, it’s what we need to do moving forward into the States,” Smolak said.

D’Albero did keep East Haven close with a goal at the end of the second period and another at the beginning of the third but a goal by Fuller with 1 minute, 53 seconds left ended the Yellowjackets hopes for an upset.

Prior to the game, the Centaurs honored their five seniors; Kaiden Keddy, Andrew Newton, Larkin,  Jurnovoy, and Elias Newall-Vuillemot.

“I couldn’t have asked for a better captain than Jurnovoy for my first year as a head coach,” said Smolak. “He’s so mature in his take and preparation for the game and he’s willing to do whatever we ask. No team has a better 1-2 tandem in goal than we do, Keddy has improved his game significantly. Newton’s work ethic is fantastic. I can’t say enough about him improving his game and accepting his role. Larkin has a lot of speed on the ice, brings energy, and his shot is probably the hardest on the team. Elias is the consummate team player for the Academy. He was the backbone for a winning JV team, while providing an old school goaltending style.”

Earlier in the week, the Centaurs picked up a pair of Nutmeg Conference victories and claimed the regular season league title in the process.

Woodstock Academy had already clinched a share of the title coming into the President’s Day game with Tri-Town but an 8-2 win at the Jahn Ice Rink at Pomfret School meant the title now belongs exclusively to the Centaurs.

“That’s good to know,” Smolak said. “All of that means nothing, though, if you show up on Day 1 (of the state tournament) and lose. Yeah, now we have something here but our ultimate goal is States. If we get to the state tournament and lay an egg on the first night, everything that we worked for here this year, no one will remember. What we want is something to remember- a state championship.”

Woodstock Academy followed up the win over Tri-Town with a 6-2 victory over the Eastern Connecticut Eagles on Friday at the Rose Garden Arena in Norwich.

While a six-goal win is normal for the Centaurs this season - they came into the game with Tri-Town averaging six goals per game and giving up just one - this one took a little work early.

The Centaurs, playing their fourth game in six days, got out of the gates a little slow.

It was Tri-Town that put the first goal on the board 11 minutes, 11 seconds into the contest when Brett Cato found the back of the net with a power-play goal.

“It poked the bear a little bit,” assistant coach Bob Donahue said of Tri-Town getting on the board first. “We don’t like to play from behind, we’re used to playing with the lead. That kind of shocked some of us and they realized it was time to wake up.”

It didn’t take long.

Fuller scored the first of his two goals off assists from Larkin and Newton just 1:49 later to send the game to the second period knotted up.

But there would be a second wake up call.

Brendan Birmingham of Tri-Town scored the first goal of the second period, just 2 ½ minutes in, to put the visitors in the lead again.

“We started off slow but that’s how we’ve played all year against (Nutmeg Conference) teams, but in the second and third period, we ramped it up to the way we usually play,” Sousa said.

The junior winger tied the game 2 ½ minutes after the Tri-Town goal and, after a Sampson goal put the Centaurs ahead to stay 9:22 into the period, added a second goal to give the Centaurs a little breathing room.

“I don’t score on the home ice a lot, it’s usually in away games where I get most my goals, so it’s good to come out here and score in front of the fans,” Sousa added.

Corradi, Larkin, and Brady Lecuyer also tallied in the win for the Centaurs.

“I was happy with how we played in the third period especially, it tends to be our best period, we put up the most goals in that time frame. We did that, continue to do that, and my focus is to bring that third period mentality to the first two periods,” Smolak said.

The Centaurs finished up their Nutmeg Conference schedule with a spotless 8-0 record with the win over the Eagles Friday.

Woodstock Academy broke out to a 3-0 first period lead on goals by Sousa, Corradi and Larkin.

The Eagles (5-12, 3-4) did counter with a goal just before the buzzer to make it 3-1 going into the second period.

Sousa added his second goal of the game in the second period and Corradi finished up the hat trick with a pair of goals in the third.

Sampson and Ian Sherman added a pair of assists in the win.