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Centaurs capture Nutmeg Conference Tournament championship

This was the one that got away last year.

“(The Eastern Connecticut Eagles) came in here last year, stole the show from us in front of all of our fans and it really sucked so we made sure to keep that one under our hats (Saturday) and we really got on them,” junior winger Donnie Sousa said.

The Woodstock Academy boys hockey team was not to be denied for a second straight season.

It posted a 5-1 win over the Eagles to bring home the Nutmeg Conference tournament championship Saturday at the Jahn Ice Rink at Pomfret School.

“We knew we were playing the same team that came in here and upset us last year. We knew they won 7-1 (versus Tri-Town in the semifinals the night before) and we knew that they were going to come out hungry and they were going to come out fast,” Woodstock Academy coach Mark Smolak said.

When those conditions exist, it’s important that the tone is set early.

Smolak thought the reason for last year’s 3-2 upset by the Eagles was that the Centaurs weren’t ready to play.

He made sure that wasn’t going to be the case this season.

“Their goalie (Cam McCollum) made a couple of outrageous saves but we were able to bear down, keep with it, keep pressure toward the net and battled for rebounds,” Smolak said.

It paid off late in the first period.

Max Larkin got the Centaurs on the board first off assists from Sam Desmond and Sam Lescault at the 12 minute, 43 second mark of the first period to give the Centaurs a lead going into the second period.

But Eastern Connecticut (7-14) answered midway through the second period when Wade Larson poked one into the Centaurs’ net.

“I think we started to let up a bit after we got confidence based on our first goal,” Woodstock Academy senior captain Jacob Jurnovoy said. “But when they got the goal back, we started pushing back.”

There was a little concern, however, as the Eagles did get a surge from the tying goal.

“You could see they were pushing us back on our heels. They were coming with a lot more speed. They felt like they had got the tie and wanted more and we gave them opportunities but it was bend, don’t break. We had to weather the storm and push back harder,” Smolak said.

The Centaurs got a little help.

A slashing call against the Eagles put the Centaurs on the power play with 49 seconds left in the period and Sousa provided what proved to be the game winner 20 seconds later.

“I was rolling around the circle, didn’t know if I was going to get the puck or not. Then Noah (Sampson) got it right in front of the crease, slid it right to me and the goalie didn’t know what to do,” Sousa described.

“Any goal in the last minute of a period is a back breaker,” Smolak added.

Woodstock Academy didn’t wait long to take a two-goal advantage as Maxx Corradi scored an unassisted goal just 3:03 into the final period.

“We knew we had to come out in the third period and be physical and it was really helpful for us to keep the play in their end,” Smolak said.

The score remained that way until the final minute when the Eagles pulled McCollum to get an extra attacker.

Corradi, off a pass from Sampson, put one into the empty net with 34 seconds left for his second tally of the game and 12 seconds later, Sousa equaled that with one of his own.

“It was really great. Anything can happen with a two-goal game so it’s good to get those insurance goals, just to guarantee you’re going to win this game,” Sousa said.

As soon as the buzzer sounded, the Centaurs skated over to the student section and the celebration began.

“It feels amazing,” Jurnovoy said. “We’ve been wanting this ever since last year when we came off the ice with a loss. We’ve been determined to bring back the Nutmeg championship to Woodstock Academy.”

Prior to the game, six members of the Centaurs were recognized as Nutmeg Conference All-Stars.

Jurnovoy, Kaiden Keddy, Ian Sherman, Sousa, Sampson and Corradi achieved all-league status.

Now, the tough work begins.

The Centaurs skate into the state tournament with a 20-1 record and winners of 13 straight.

Throw those records out, however, in Division II play.

“At this point, we are the second seed and everything previous doesn’t matter. This is the one sport where there is a team who doesn’t belong on the ice who can still come out and win. We have to have the mentality of taking no one lightly, have to play in our system with the style that got us where we are and we have to ramp it up. Everyone will be coming at us hard,” Smolak said.

The Centaurs open state tournament play on Tuesday at 5 p.m. at the Jahn Ice Rink with a first-round game against 15th-seeded Glastonbury.

The Guardians come in with a 7-12-1 record and are familiar to the Centaurs.

Woodstock Academy downed Glastonbury, 3-1, on its home ice on Feb. 18.

“It helps that we’ve played them before but we did so without a full lineup. We had two guys recovering from a stomach bug and three guys who were out with that stomach bug. They pushed us hard and it was a close game until the third period. We need to realize that they are a physical team with speed. We have to be ready,” Smolak said.

Sometimes, it’s not easy to flip the switch.

Coming off the high of winning a championship on a Saturday to playing another game on a Tuesday but Jurnovoy assured there will be no letdown by the Centaurs.

“I feel like we can keep this team on its toes. We definitely have the work ethic to carry us to a state title,” the captain said.