It was going to take two perfect performances for the Pilgrim hockey team to upset top-seeded Coventry in the Division II semifinals. While the Patriots hung tough, played solid defense and got great goaltending, Coventry’s strength – particularly at the defensive end – kept the Pats from even flirting with that perfection.
The Oakers allowed Pilgrim to put just 22 shots on net in the series and capitalized on their own chances en route to a 2-0 victory Friday night and a 6-1 triumph on Saturday. The victories earned Coventry a sweep and a spot in the Division II championship series, which begins this weekend.
The Pats were left wondering what more they could have done. Against a Coventry team that’s looking like a juggernaut, the answer may have been not much.
“They’re a better hockey team, there’s no question about that. They’re beatable, but we would have had to have played the right type of game the right way,” said Pilgrim head coach Dave Tober. “We had a system to do it, and believe it or not, we got more into the system tonight – chipping pucks low, beating them to the pucks. I thought we forechecked really well. We just didn’t get pucks to the net. You can’t score goals if pucks aren’t going to the net. Ultimately that did us in.”
Pilgrim was one of only two teams to beat Coventry this season, but the win came in the season opener. Since then, the Oakers had reeled off 17 consecutive wins before losing game one of their quarterfinal series. They won the next two for a spot opposite the Pats.
And they brought their defense. While game one was a low-scoring affair and game two more lopsided, the common thread was that the Oakers were clamping down. Pilgrim put just 10 shots on net in game one and only 12 in game two. That combined tally of 22 was two less than Pilgrim’s lowest single-game output this season.
“They were strong all year,” Tober said. “You knew that was for a reason, whether it was because the puck was always in the offensive zone or their goalie was just that good or because their D is that good. Honestly, I think it’s all three. They’re the deepest Division II team I’ve seen in my years of coaching at this level.”
Pilgrim was hoping to spring the upset and came out flying in front of a packed house at the Cranston Rink on Friday night. Three minutes into the game, they went on the power play, and though they came up empty, they were skating with the Oakers.
Soon after the power play ended, though, the Pats fell behind. With 9:08 left in the first period, Joseph Stringfellow took a pass from the corner and ripped a slap shot past Pilgrim goalie Ian Giuttari for the 1-0 lead.
The Pats had their best chance for an answer a minute later, when Nick McGuirl slipped a pass from behind the net to a wide open Cody Weaver, but Coventry goalie Stephen Schmitt stopped his point-blank shot.
After that, the Pats didn’t get many more looks, and with 5:06 left in the second period, the Oakers made the hole deeper on a goal by Robert Beaudoin.
From there, Giuttari kept Pilgrim in the game with some strong play in net and finished with 22 saves, but the Pats couldn’t mount much of a charge. They had just three shots on goal the rest of the way.
“You can’t go period after period against a team like Coventry without scoring goals,” Tober said. “They’re going to score. As good as your own goalie is, they’re going to have opportunities and they’re going to cash in on some.”
That was the blueprint for the Oakers.
“Our forwards can really keep the pace of the game going, and that’s our game,” said Coventry head coach Ken Bird. “Our game is speed, dumping the puck. Eventually you make a team make mistakes around their goalie.”
The Pats tried to regroup for Saturday’s game two, and Tober thought the performance was better. The Pats had some chances in the early going and limited Coventry’s shots. The teams were scoreless for the first 13:56 of the game.
But then Coventry broke through, and again the Pats found themselves in a hole. With 1:04 left in the first, Michael Pesola cut across the slot, took a pass from Matthew Tanksley and beat Giuttari high for the 1-0 lead.
“I actually thought we played better tonight,” Tober said. “Last night, I thought they completely controlled the play and we kind of hung on for dear life. We did more of what we wanted to do tonight, but when you go two nights with 22 shots, you’re not going to score. We just couldn’t materialize anything offensively. Even though we got the pucks low, getting pucks to the net was tough, and that’s a credit to their defense. They’re a very, very good team. Deep, they come in waves.”
And unfortunately for the Pats, the waves came crashing in the second period. Pesola scored again with 11:06 left to make it 2-0, and Conner DiPietro made it 3-0 on a goal just over three minutes later. The Oakers then added two more goals before the period was over, one from Tanksley and one from Corey Rogers.
“Tonight, we finally got to Ian,” Bird said. “He’s a fantastic goalie. Even tonight, he might have let in six, but he came up with some fantastic saves. That’s six games against him in the last two years. Finally the puck went in tonight.”
Facing a 5-0 deficit, the Pats finally got on the board 3:45 into the third period. McGuirl carried the puck to the high slot and sent a shot toward the goal. Susie Cavanagh redirected it into the net to make it a 5-1 game.
But that would stand as Pilgrim’s only goal of the series, and the Oakers had no trouble finishing out the victory. They got a goal from Stringfellow with 4:28 left for the final margin.
The Pats had just two more shots the rest of the way, continuing a series-long trend that saw the Oakers wear the Pats down. Fourteen of Pilgrim’s 22 shots came in the first period of each game. In the other four periods, the Pats had only eight shots.
“It just goes to show – we can wear teams down,” Bird said. “We’re deep. We’ve got five guys playing regularly on defense and we’re playing four lines. It shows as the game goes on.”
And for a Pilgrim team that skated just two lines all year, it was too much to overcome.
“They’re a D-I team,” Tober said. “In my opinion, they could be the best public school in the state. They deserve to be in the finals. In the end, we ran up against a really good team and we didn’t do enough to beat them. But I’m very proud of them.”
For Pilgrim, the loss ended one of the program’s most successful seasons in recent memory. The Pats matched last year’s regular-season win total and advanced one round further into the playoffs, doing it all with one of the smallest rosters in the division.
“I’ve got a lot of guys who are upset in that locker room, and it’s not because they don’t get to play anymore this year,” Tober said. “It’s because they work so hard and they care so much. That was our season. You look at the people who come out and watch this team. They don’t watch them because they’re just friends with them in the hallways. You can have a bunch of buddies playing hockey, but you don’t sacrifice all this time to come out and watch them play it they’re not going to work hard. Just looking at the stands every home game and even most of the away games – it’s a tribute to how hard they work.”
The Pats will bid farewell to seniors Cavanagh, Danny Gillis, Giuttari, McGuirl and Weaver, a class that is close to Tober’s heart. He took over the program when they were freshmen, and the Pats were coming off a 1-15 season.
The Pats have been to the playoffs every year since.
“Outstanding careers,” Tober said. “I’ve been here four years and they were my first class, and we did a lot of good things. Playoffs every year, two semifinal appearances, beating teams no one would think we could beat, and honestly, putting Pilgrim hockey back on the map. Those guys are responsible for that. They just worked and worked and bought into what we were preaching. That’s what makes us a successful program. Success isn’t just standing on the top of the hill at the end of the season at PC, it’s being proud of how hard you work and what you achieve. Pilgrim high school hockey is the epitome of that.”