Pilgrim and Toll Gate didn’t play each other during the first half of the hockey season, but they’ll be very familiar with each other in the second half. Sunday’s meeting in the Andrew J. Gauthier Hockey Festival was the first of three games between the teams in the next month.
It was Pilgrim that set the tone.
The Pats fell behind early but used their physical style to take control of the game. Goals by Sam Adamo and Brett Casale gave the Pats a 2-1 lead and they put the game on ice with a late goal in the third period from Stephen Russo on their way to a 3-1 victory.
“They’ve got some big kids and they play physical,” said Toll Gate head coach Mike Champagne. “They rode that. I think we were a little shell-shocked by the physical play. They’ll learn from it. It’s not a league game. Hopefully they take advantage of that learning experience because we’ve got these guys two more times.”
Toll Gate dropped to 2-9 overall, while Pilgrim improved to 5-6. The Pats had won two of their last three league games heading into Sunday and wanted to keep it going against the Titans. Doing so was big, especially since the Pats played physical without spending too much time in the penalty box.
“We had a good showing tonight,” said Pilgrim head coach Chad Tvenstrup. “We’re really focused on playing more disciplined hockey. We’re a physical team. We play physical and I like that. But we have a lot of penalties racked up against us this year so I’m really trying to get them to play disciplined. They did that tonight. Against Toll Gate, there’s a lot of emotion there, but they handled themselves pretty well.”
The Pats found themselves in a 1-0 hole in the first period. With 5:55 left, Toll Gate’s Ryan Charette got loose in the slot and passed the puck to just in front of the crease, where Steve Mathews tucked it around Pilgrim goalie Devon Gamba for the 1-0 cushion.
For Pilgrim, the early deficit was nothing new.
“We’re that kind of team,” Tvenstrup said. “In the Middletown game last weekend, second period, we went down 3-0 in a matter of two minutes. But we don’t lose our composure. We fought back and won that game in overtime. If we let the first goal in, it doesn’t really get us down to the point where we can’t make a comeback.”
On Sunday, the comeback started quickly. With 3:14 left in the first, Adamo cut across the slot from the right circle and took a shot. Toll Gate goalie David Stachurski saved it but the rebound slipped right back to Adamo, who backhanded the puck into the net to tie the game.
In the second period, the Pats went on a power play with 13:43 left, came up empty but then went on another one at the 9:13. This time, they broke through. With 8:04 left, Taylor Stringfellow took a faceoff and cleared out. Liam Strain came in to grab the puck and slipped it back to Casale, who rifled a slap shot from the left circle that beat Stachurski, giving Pilgrim a 2-1 lead.
From there, the Pats held strong. Gamba made four good saves early in the third period on shots by Mathews, and the defense – despite playing without mainstays Nolan McCusker and Cory Casale – didn’t let Toll Gate generate many chances.
The Titans did have a window when Pilgrim picked up a penalty with 3:41 left in the game, but they failed to set anything up on the ensuing power play. At the 2:01 mark, the Titans were whistled for a penalty of their own and 10 seconds later, Russo scored the back-breaker.
“We’re not aggressive enough,” Champagne said of the empty power play. “It boils down to that. We can get on the puck and we’re a step slow. They weren’t. They were able to get the puck and just go skate, whereas we kind of look at each other and then decide to go. It’s just a matter of being aggressive, getting on top of it and doing it consistently. It’s something we saw all game and it showed on the power play.”
The loss was the fifth in a row for the Titans. Adding injury to insult, the Titans lost senior captain Dylan Russo to a broken leg in the East Greenwich game, and he’s done for the season.
“We had a big injury and it’s not an excuse, but I think now that other guys have to step up, they’re not quite ready,” Champagne said. “And then it snowballs from there, with guys trying to do things that aren’t their job. We get out of sorts. We got on a little bit of a roll for a couple of games there, but we’ve hit a little bit of a skid.”
The Titans will try to regroup for a doubleheader this weekend against Middletown and Johnston/North Providence. Middletown is 4-6 while JNP is 0-10.
On the other side, Pilgrim will be trying to carry some momentum into a big week. The Pats were scheduled to play division leader North Kingstown on Monday. On Friday, they’ll play Cumberland at 7:30 p.m. at Adelard Arena.
“It’s a big week coming up for us,” Tvenstrup said. “This was a good start.”