By Danny Atkinson
middlesexcountysports@gmail.com

CROMWELL — After an inconsistent season that featured an extended losing streak, the Rocky Hill/Middletown/Plainville/Haddam-Killingworth boys ice hockey program entered Saturday’s Senior Day game against New Milford desperately seeking a win over a tough opponent.

And while the co-op didn’t earn one, the Terriers knew they had made a great comeback effort and gave the Green Wave everything they could handle.

After two scoreless periods at Champions Ice Rink, a wild third quarter featured four goals, culminating in a score by forward Jacob Nelson with 1 second remaining to send the game to overtime. The Terriers’ excitement was quickly extinguished however, as they committed a turnover just over a minute in and New Milford seized the opportunity.

The Wave quickly got out in front of the defense and goalie Aaron McLeod could not secure the puck on a stop, allowing center Zack Thompson to score on the rebound 1:24 into OT. The Terriers’ 3-2 loss silenced a rowdy crowd there to celebrate both Senior Day and a fundraiser for Rocky Hill junior Andrew Spada, who is battling brain cancer.

“The game was probably going to be decided by which team had a turnover and we just happened to commit one on the defensive end trying to break the puck out,” Terriers coach Dave Dubos said. “We keep telling the kids mistakes and accidents are going to happen, it’s about how you deal with it and respond afterwards and keep going.”

The Terriers’ loss extended their winless streak of played games to nine. After losing seven straight, the Terriers (6-11-1) defeated SGWL by forfeit last weekend, and on Wednesday played Conard to a scoreless tie.

The first two periods featured strong, physical defense and an inability by both squads to take advantage of power-play opportunities. In the third, both the Terriers and New Milford (10-6-1) did a better job of taking advantage of scoring opportunities.

The Terriers quickly pounced in the third. Jonas Veales made a great save 2:07 in, but couldn’t stop Nelson on a breakaway just over a minute later. The senior fired a missile low from left of the net and Veales missed the puck in the right post, giving Rocky Hill a 1-0 lead. Nelson described the puck finding him as “a lucky bounce.”

Over the next three minutes, the Terriers did a quality job of protecting the puck and keeping it in the neutral zone. Eventually, the Green Wave broke through on the power play. A Terriers player was penalized for five minutes due to boarding to give New Milford an extra man. Just a few seconds later, an open Graham Mitchell received a pass from Nick Carlucci and snuck it inside the right post to tie the game at the 6:38 mark.

Both teams could not maintain control of the puck consistently and dealt with having penalized players. Rocky Hill co-op had a chance at a quality shot but the puck handler whiffed on it, and Veales made a save with roughly 3:30 remaining in the third.

Just as each team returned to even strength, the Green Wave seized the lead. A series of crisp passes led to Carlucci feeding Mitchell for his second goal as his shot snuck under McLeod’s glove to his right. New Milford was up 2-1 with just 1:45 remaining, while the Terriers had the unenviable task of taking a game to overtime for the first time this season.

As the seconds ticked away, they pushed the tempo drastically and their work paid off. After winning a face-off with 8 seconds left, multiple Terriers crashed toward the goal and a tipped shot by defenseman Tyler Poulin came right back out to Nelson in front of the goal. He fired the puck past Veales with 1 second on the clock to send it to overtime, setting off a wild celebration.

Dubos and Nelson were certainly frustrated to come up short once again in OT. However, they were very proud of the effort the Terriers put forth.

“We’ve learned tonight and throughout the season we need to dig a little bit deeper and never give up no matter how hard it seems,” Dubos said. “Those lessons finally carried over onto the ice and they realized that every second counts. I just told them how proud I was that they were able to rise to the moment and come through.”

“It was definitely a tough loss, especially being our last home game,” Nelson said. “We would have loved to pull it out, but I’m very pleased with what we did in the third period. The number of penalties we killed while only allowing two goals was great. We fought very hard, and even during the penalty kills we still managed to dominate them now and then.”

The defenses were very strong in the opening 30 minutes and made it difficult to obtain breakaways or take advantage of turnovers. This was despite at least one player and sometimes two sitting with penalties throughout both periods. In particular, Rocky Hill co-op struggled to maintain possession for very long in the second despite controlling power plays.

When players were able to get good shots, McLeod and Veales consistently denied them. McLeod especially held up throughout the game, withstanding 37 shots on goal by New Milford. Veales had 10 saves.

Nelson, Mitchell and Carlucci each ended the game with two points. Centers Ryan Parker and Joey Lacava had assists for the Green Wave.

The Terriers have regular season games remaining at South Windsor (Wednesday) and Newington Co-op (Saturday). They have already qualified for the CIAC Division III playoffs and are 13th in the standings as of Saturday. It’s an impressive achievement for a program that lost Wethersfield as its co-op partner following the 2019 season, leading the Terriers to add H-K as its replacement.

In last year’s pandemic-shortened first season with H-K participating, the Terriers were 2-6.

Dubos discussed what the program must do to earn at least one win in its final two regular-season games and enter the playoffs with momentum.

“We have proven we can compete with every team we’ve played, even if they have a bigger roster or are in a higher division,” he said. “We just need to be mentally strong and disciplined. The program has had huge growth in a short period of time and these guys love one another.

“We just have to bring the puck out well and communicate a little more to give up fewer shots to opponents.”

As an honorary member of the team this season, Spada has been presented a specially made jersey and regularly talks to the Terriers before they take the ice. The program runs a Hockey Fights Cancer fundraiser for Spada and his family via the American Cancer Society website. The fundraiser was a centerpiece of Saturday’s game.

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