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Div. II state tournament: It's on to the semifinals for the Centaurs

The march through March continued for the Woodstock Academy boys hockey team this past week.

On Friday, the second-seeded Centaurs advanced one step further than a year ago in CIAC Division II state tournament play as they knocked off No. 7 Westhill/Stamford, 6-2, at the Koeppel Community Sports Center at Trinity College.

“You go through each year hoping to improve on what you did in the previous year and we definitely did that in that regular season,” said Woodstock Academy first-year head coach Mark Smolak. “We got over the hump and exorcised the demons of losing in that rink and moved on to round three. It’s exciting. We are on a 15-game winning streak, we have two more to go, and we just really need to take care of business and end this on a positive note.”

The Centaurs lost to Lyman Hall a year ago in overtime on the Trinity College ice in a quarterfinal game.

Trinity College will now be a memory as Woodstock Academy will have to travel a bit further for the semifinal contest on Tuesday.

The Centaurs (22-1) will play the sixth-seeded Branford Hornets at 5:30 p.m. at Quinnipiac University.

Woodstock Academy posted an 11-1 win over Branford on Dec. 17 at the Northford Ice Rink in the second game of the season for both programs.

“They have put together quite a run since then, they had a few more losses, but weren’t blown out by anyone,” Smolak said.

Branford also defeated top-seeded North Haven, the only team that has beaten Woodstock Academy this season, 3-2, on Feb. 1.

“They’re going to be hungry. They were embarrassed (by the loss to the Centaurs). Any team would be embarrassed when you play your second game of the season and lose by 10 goals. I think we need to fully expect that they will feel slighted, want payback, and want to take it to us and show not only us, but the rest of the state, that they are not a team to be taken lightly,” Smolak said.

The win over Westhill/Stamford on Friday didn’t follow the normal path that recent games for the Centaurs have.

Instead of a slow start in the first period, Woodstock Academy jumped on the Vikings for three first-period goals.

“We haven’t been putting together 45 minutes of hockey and have really struggled with getting off to a good start so to come out flying and get those three goals quick was great to see,” Smolak said.

Senior captain Jacob Jurnovoy was the first to find the net as he took a pass from Max Larkin, who finished with a pair of assists, and beat Westhill/Stamford goalie Nate Margerum just 3 minutes, 29 seconds into the contest.

Just a little over three minutes later, junior Donnie Sousa put an unassisted tally in and he followed that up with 2:49 left in the period with his 27th goal of the season off an assist from Maxx Corradi.

“We’ve been consistent production, not only from Donnie, but both of our first two lines. We have more than one threat on the ice at all times has been a huge benefit for the team,” Smolak said.

Sometimes, a big early lead isn’t such a benefit, however.

The Vikings came out in the second period wanting to make amends for their poor first period showing.

Kevin Unger got one past Woodstock Academy goalie Dante Sousa just 46 seconds into the second period and Owen Van Dusen followed just 2:15 later and just like that, it was a game again.

“After we got the third goal, we sat back a little bit,” Smolak said. “It was almost like we had the feeling that our work was done. We had a three-goal lead, we’re a solid defensive team and no one puts up more than one or two goals against us. We can sit back and kill time.”

Unfortunately, the Vikings, in Smolak’s view, were a “relentless” team and wasn’t about to give up.

“It taught us a nice lesson, you can’t take your foot off the gas regardless of the lead you have. You have to play to the final buzzer,” the Woodstock Academy coach added.

The Centaurs had been hemmed in for much of the second period but Jurnovoy was able to break out and restored a two-goal lead for his teammates when he scored with 3:19 left in the second period with help from Larkin and Jayden Fuller.

Still, Smolak was on pins and needles.

“It didn’t matter what the score was. (Westhill/Stamford) was good and scored two goals in three minutes and if we had sat back at all, they could be right back in it. There was not a moment in that game after they scored that second goal where I felt comfortable,” he said.

But he did have Dante Sousa in goal who squashed quite a few chances by the Vikings.

“If it wasn’t for him, at the end of the first period or in the second, it could have been a different game. They had a lot of quality shots on him,” Smolak said.

Corradi did put the finishing touches on the win as he scored his 39th and 40th goals of the season in the third period to make sure the Centaurs advanced to the final four in Division II.  

The Centaurs opened the state tournament by posting their sixth shutout of the season, a 5-0 win over No. 15 Glastonbury in a first-round game Tuesday at the Jahn Ice Rink at Pomfret School, which enabled them to advance to the quarterfinal.

“I’m stoked,” sophomore Maxx Corradi said about a return trip to the quarters after the first-round win. “I definitely like to play better teams. When we play teams that we feel are a little less than us, we underestimate them. Going in against a fresh team, a good team, it will be better for us.”

It looked like it was going to be easy for the Centaurs early against the Guardians.

Freshman Jack Larkin got the first goal just 2 minutes, 38 seconds into the game when he knuckled one in from the point that bounced at just the right time and hopped over Glastonbury goalie Patrick Sullivan’s glove for Larkin’s third goal of the season.

“I told him that shot wouldn’t have broken a pane of glass but it’s still 1-0. The kid was nervous, he’s a freshman, we knew he was nervous. We didn’t get a lot of quality shots in the first period,” said Woodstock Academy assistant coach Bob Donahue.

The Centaurs, instead, let Glastonbury dictate the play a bit and that led to a very physical first period where Woodstock Academy was hit with a pair of penalties.

Fortunately, Dante Sousa and the defense was up to the task.

The sophomore made 27 saves and made the one-goal lead stand up for 22 minutes.

“It was tough especially in the first period when we were only up 1-0. I didn’t think (Larkin’s shot) went in. We started to get some momentum in the second period and got more comfortable,” Dante Sousa said.

Dante Sousa and the defense, however, had to hold that slim lead together for 22 minutes.

Jack Larkin, Ian Sherman, Sam Desmond, Ryan Wallace and Sam Lescault shined in front of Sousa.

“It was a little nerve-wracking coming into the year because we had lost three key contributors on defense to graduation and we had three freshmen, a sophomore, and three juniors, two of whom didn’t play that much. We didn’t know what we were going to get. They took the challenge, saw the spots ahead of them and are pushing each other and playing really well,” Smolak said of his defense.

It looked as if the Centaurs had taken a 2-0 lead in the second period when Fuller put the puck in the back of the net just 1:26 into the period.

But an unintentional goalie interference call against the Centaurs disallowed the goal.

“It was just, ‘Well, that one got waved off, we’re going to get one now, and we’re going to make sure that there is no chance it’s going to be waved off,’” Smolak said.

Corradi did that eight minutes later.

He made a nice spin move on the blue line, turned, and put the puck in the back of the net.

“I was able to beat (Sullivan) wide. I think he ended up falling and I was able to pick a corner and that really gave us some momentum that we needed,” Corradi said.

The sophomore’s second goal of the game was just as nice and it came with the Centaurs shorthanded with 1:27 left in the second period.

“Donnie (Sousa) was some how able to dish the puck out to me from against the wall. I was able to pull it across the line and put it right over his (left) shoulder,” Corradi said.

Smolak is not surprised by Corradi’s production this season.

“He has a deadly shot,” Smolak said. “I suit up for practice (Smolak is a former goalie) just to give them something new and he put one by me. He’s highly accurate, knows where to put it, knows where to find space. I said to him before we came out of the (locker room) for the second period and I said, ‘Maxx, do what you do best, go score some goals.’ He looked at me and said, ‘I got ya.’”

The Centaurs finished things up in the third period as Noah Sampson scored with 12:05 left to play off the third assist from Donnie Sousa in the game.

Sampson then paid back the favor with an assist on a Donnie Sousa goal with 8:24 left to account for the final.