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Woodstock Academy headed to Division II state title game

The Woodstock Academy boys hockey team has accomplished just about every goal it has had for the 2022-23 season.

It has a 16-game win streak which has raised its record to 23-1 overall.

It has captured the Nutmeg Conference regular season and tournament titles.

And, thus far, it has zipped through the CIAC Division II state tournament with first round, quarterfinal and Wednesday, an 8-5 semifinal victory over sixth-seeded Branford at the M&T Bank Arena at Quinnipiac University in Hamden.

It leaves just one hurdle to clear.

But it’s a big one.

A win in a state championship game.

“It’s so special”, said Woodstock Academy junior Noah Sampson. “I’ve never been a part of a team that has been this dominant. One loss. Hopefully, we can repeat 2017.”

That was the first and last time the Centaurs brought a state championship back to Northeastern Connecticut with a win over Hall/Southington in the Division III state title game.

Now, Woodstock Academy, the second-seeded team in Division II, must take on the top-seeded team, North Haven, on Tuesday at 7 p.m. also at the M&T Bank Arena at Quinnipiac University.

“It’s definitely going to be helpful,” sophomore Maxx Corradi said of having already played a game at Quinnipiac. “We will know the ice surface a little better. I don’t think the butterflies will be a problem. I think I’m just going to get them out when I go out there for warmups. Everything should go away, but, I’ve never played on that big a stage before.”

It will be the second meeting between the two.

North Haven captured the first meeting, 5-1, on Jan. 11.

“Not lose,” Woodstock Academy coach Mark Smolak said with a chuckle when asked what his team has to do differently against North Haven. “We gave them too many odd-man rushes; we had some bad pinches on their end of the ice. The biggest issue – and I recently looked at the shooting charts from that game- is that we generated six shots in the house and they held us to 15 shots in the game. We are a high-powered offense, with creativity and ability to score. If we are not going to the danger areas of the ice in order to make sure that we get chances to score, than we aren’t going to score. That’s something North Haven does extremely well, they limit offensive opportunities by other teams.”

The Centaurs were on their game offensively against the Hornets in the semifinal.

Although it took a little shock to the system to get things kick started.

Branford’s Matt Morgan scored just 2 minutes, 8 seconds into the game.

“Everyone was nervous to be honest. That first goal was a wake up call, got all the nerves out of us and we bounced back quick,” Corradi said.

The Centaurs were also able to celebrate a bit, not only for tying the game less than two minutes later on a goal by Sampson, but also because it was the junior’s 100th career point.

“It’s a good milestone, but I think winning States will be better. It was good to get that (100th point) first,”Sampson said.

The Sampson goal opened the floodgates for the Centaurs.

Senior captain Jacob Jurnovoy scored just two minutes later, Sampson added his second goal a minute later at the 7:17 mark of the period and 30 seconds later, Corradi tallied for a first time.

It gave the Centaurs a 4-1 advantage at the end of the first period.

“I liked that our offense was there was able to hammer in some goals. I wanted (the blue line of Sampson, Corradi, and Donnie Sousa)to deliver a message on a big stage and I wanted the announcer to be forced to say the names of those boys as much as humanly possible,” Smolak said. “Offensively,we were great. The green line continues to get goals, too. I think both lines have now scored goals in six straight games.”

It was also important a bit for Sampson who had been in a little goal-scoring drought.

He finished with a hat trick.

“Noah said to me the other day, ‘I just want to let you know that we are going to dominate’ (versus Branford),” Smolak said. “Noah has had a rough season in terms of health. He was really sick, missed a few games, got better and then got sick again. It’s just trying to get back into the groove when you are not consistently playing and you are a skilled player like he is. Sometimes, it just takes a minute to get the timing. He’s hitting his peak when we need him to hit his peak.”

The message in the locker room following the first period was pretty simple.

A three-goal lead, don’t let up.

“He just told us to keep focus,” Corradi said.

The Centaurs did that for the most part in the second and third periods.

Branford did get a second period score but Woodstock Academy countered with goals by Sousa and Corradi.

The Centaurs went up 8-2 in the third when both Corradi and Sampson completed their three-goal efforts.

But the last 5 minutes, 44 seconds was something that would not make any coach happy as the Hornets scored three goals, two of them of the shorthanded variety.

“It was definitely a wakeup call. You don’t want to get scored on that many times that late in a game especially when you are up big,” Corradi said. “We shouldn’t have let them hang around like they did. We definitely learned from our mistakes with that.”

Smolak was not thrilled.

“We just lacked attention in our defensive zone, we just had some careless mistakes that need to be fixed,” Smolak said.

Corradi finished with three goals and six points in total as he added three assists.

“Not too bad,” Corradi said, “but, I’m just happy we won.”

Sousa added four assists to the cause while Ian Sherman, Max Larkin and Ryan Wallace also added assists.

Smolak now knows what his job is.

Keep his team grounded.

“If they think (the semifinal game) was a big crowd, it will be bigger on Tuesday. We have to accept it. Blurt out everything else that is surrounding you, focus on the game, and realize that, at the end of the day, it’s a hockey game. It’s something we’ve done extremely well throughout the entire season. It’s a hockey game, we’ve done this hundreds of times, we know what we’re doing, believe in your abilities and yourself and we will be all right,” the Woodstock Academy coach said.