Kowalik leads Titans past Oakers in Game 3

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D.J. Kowalik wasn’t ready for his high school hockey career to be over.

In front of a packed crowd at Thayer Arena on Monday evening, Kowalik, the Titans’ senior captain, put an emphatic close to Toll Gate’s Division II quarterfinal series against Coventry, netting four goals to lead the Titans to a 6-3 Game 3 victory.

“I didn’t want this to be my last game in high school,” Kowalik said after the series-clinching win. “I just wanted to give it all I got, and that’s what I did.”

The Oakers simply didn’t have an answer for Kowalik, who potted one goal in the first period, two in the second and one in the third. He registered two power play goals and a pair of breakaway goals while 5-on-5.

“When he’s playing north-south and he’s engaged, he’s a natural goal scorer and a big-time player,” Toll Gate head coach Mike Champagne said of Kowalik. “When he starts playing with confidence, good things happen, and we saw that tonight. He was all over the place, good two-way hockey. It was just a great performance.”

Toll Gate took advantage of a Kyle Wheeler roughing penalty at 7:59 of the opening period, with Kowalik sniping a shot blocker side through traffic just over a minute into the man advantage to give the Titans a 1-0 lead.

That lead was short-lived as a giveaway at Toll Gate’s offensive blue line led to the equalizing goal from Robert Thayer, who tucked a shot five-hole on a breakaway.

The first period ended with the score knotted at 1 but, just over two minutes into the second period, Toll Gate was able to regain the lead.

The puck trickled out to Greg Fontaine at the right point, who teed up a slap shot and found twine at 2:20 to give the Titans back the lead, 2-1.

From there, Kowalik took over. He out-skated Coventry’s defensemen for a breakaway goal at 4:57 of the period, and he completed his hat trick less than three minutes later when he buried a 2-on-1 chance off a feed from Connor Sullivan on the power play to make it 4-1.

“We knew we had it from him, and he showed up in a big spot tonight,” Champagne said of Kowalik.

Toll Gate was on the brink of a rout, but a debatable five-minute charging penalty assessed to Max Fields with 4:01 remaining in the second period gave Coventry a glimmer of hope.

After a few solid minutes of killing off the penalty, Toll Gate had a breakdown in coverage, leading to an easy goal for Thayer at the back post after a nice pass from Wheeler, allowing the Oakers to make it a two-goal game, 4-2, at the end of two.

Coventry went into the third period with 59 seconds worth of power play time remaining, but it wasn’t able to capitalize any further.

Kowalik was then able to up the lead to three when he finished off a backhand on a breakaway for his fourth goal of the evening, giving Toll Gate a 5-2 advantage at 1:41 of the third.

Thayer would complete his hat trick shortly after to make it a two-goal game once again, but Kyle Palumbo answered when he cleaned up a rebound in the crease off a Jack Dean shot to seal the victory.

Toll Gate’s confidence never dwindled after the Game 2 loss, and it showed on Monday as it outshot Coventry 43-23.

“Saturday night was tough, but we knew we had another game,” Champagne said. “There was definitely some nervous energy, but once they got through warmups and the first shift, it was like ‘OK, we’re just playing a game.’”

The Titans will now move on to face top-seeded Rogers/Middletown/Rocky Hill Co-op in the semifinals this weekend.

RMR defeated Toll Gate in the only meeting between the two teams, 2-1, during the regular season, and that’s how RMR has won most of its games – with defense. It was seventh in Division II in goals scored, but its 28 goals against were the fewest Division II-South.

“Their defense is really good,” Kowalik said of RMR. “I really don’t think they have a forward stretch, but their defense is really good.”

RMR and Toll Gate will open their series at St. George’s on Friday night at 7 p.m. The series will then shift to Thayer Arena on Saturday evening for Game 2 at 7:30 p.m.

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