The Pilgrim hockey team was confident going into its quarterfinal round series of the Division II playoffs, and it paid dividends last weekend.
The Pats disposed of Middletown in two games, winning the first game 4-0 and then outlasting the Mariners in a game two shootout for a 1-0 victory.
Set for the semifinals now, Pilgrim is confident again, but its opponent is confident, too – and has every right to be.
Beginning on Friday, Coventry, the defending D-II champion and the top seed from D-II-North, will push Pilgrim, the No. 3 seed from the North, for a spot in the finals.
The Oakers went 17-1 during the regular season, and suffered only their second loss to D-II competition in the quarterfinals when they lost game one of their series with South Kingstown 3-2.
But Coventry came back to win 6-3 in game two and 4-1 in game three to avenge the loss and advance to the semis.
Now with Pilgrim on the docket, the Oakers will try to avenge their only other loss on the season – a 2-1 defeat to Pilgrim in the first game of the regular season on Dec. 2.
The Pats, though, aren’t planning on lying down, regardless of how good Coventry has been.
“Our goal wasn’t just to get to the semis,” Pilgrim head coach Dave Tober said. “We’re putting some good work in these next few days. We know what we have ahead of us. It’s just a matter of preparing and going.”
Pilgrim and Coventry played two more times during the regular season after their initial meeting, and the Oakers won both match-ups. Coventry won 4-1 on Feb. 17 and then closed out the regular season with a 2-0 victory on Feb. 25.
The last of those wins – the 2-0 game – was Coventry’s 17th consecutive win since losing to Pilgrim.
Yet, it was a game that the Pats felt good about it. If a few plays had gone just a little more Pilgrim’s way, there could have been an entirely different result.
That might not seem like a ton to build on, but coupled with the early season victory, it’s more success than any other team has had against the Oakers all season.
“You’ve got to beat them at some point,” Tober said. “Whether it’s in the semis or in the finals. We’re certainly not fretting that we have them. The three games, we beat them that one time and the last game where they beat us 2-0, we played well.”
In order to win, though, Pilgrim knows it will have to be at its best.
Coventry boasts five of the top 11 point-getters in all of Division II, including Conner DiPietro, who is tied for the No. 1 spot with Pilgrim’s Nick McGuirl with 51 points.
Behind DiPietro, the Oakers have Jacob Harrington, who’s fourth with 43 points, Eric Pesola, who’s sixth with 41, Zach Levesque, who’s 10th with 36 and Corey Rogers, who’s 11th with 34.
The Pats, on the other hand, have McGuirl at the top and Cody Weaver in seventh with 40 points, but nobody else in the top 30.
During the season, Coventry scored a D-II-high 124 goals. Pilgrim scored 73.
And while Tober certainly sees the Oakers’ scoring output as a testament to their strength up front, he also realizes it’s a product of their opponents’ defensive lapses.
That’s what he has his team focused on avoiding, more than anything else.
“A lot of that is because they score so many goals and they’re always around the net, and they don’t stop,” Tober said. “How many goals they score doesn’t concern me at all. It’s the offensive opportunities that you provide for them. That comes down to defensive breakdowns.”
In net, Coventry has been the most dominant team in the division all year. It allowed just 14 goals in 18 regular season games, while rotating back-and-forth between two goalies.
Stephen Schmitt and Vincent Zannella, both sophomores, played an identical 405 minutes in net during the season and each allowed just seven total goals.
Each of their goals against averages is a division-best .78, while Schmitt had a league-leading .961 save percentage and Zannella was second at .954.
Schmitt played in games one and three against South Kingstown, while Zannella was between the pipes for game two.
That said, directly behind those two statistically is Pilgrim’s goaltender, Ian Giuttari.
Giuttari finished the regular season with a 2.09 goals against average, but has taken it to a new level in the playoffs.
He stopped 29 shots in a game one shutout against Middletown, and then stopped 25 more in a shutout in game two. In the shootout, he turned away three of the four Middletown shooters.
Right now, it would be hard to say that anybody is playing better.
“I’d take him over anyone,” Tober said. “I really would. Not only is he exceptionally talented and skilled as a goaltender, but he’s in the zone right now. He’s feeling it. The best thing you can have in the playoffs is a hot goalie, and he’s not only hot, he’s really good.”
And the Pats hope that Giuttari’s play, and an emphasis on puck control, adds up to the perfect recipe for knocking the Oakers off their throne.
“I’m not as concerned about how many goals all their forwards have scored or anything like that,” Tober said. “To me, they’re all guys in white jerseys. They’re dangerous in our zone when we turn the puck over. When we take care of the puck, then I feel good about what we can do.”
The first game of the series is scheduled for Friday night at 8:10 p.m. at the Cranston Rink, with Coventry serving as the home team.
Game two will be at 7 p.m. at Thayer Arena, on Saturday.
If a third game is necessary, it will be played on Monday, with the site and time still to be determined.
“They’re really good, so we have to play a really good hockey game to beat them,” Tober said. “We did a lot of the same things in the 2-0 game at the end of the year that we did in that first game. That’s what it’s going to take.”