Published DateLACONIA — After two games against Berlin last week, the Belmont-Gilford hockey team was unable to give Division III's leading team its first loss of the season. Bulldogs coach Jay Londer hopes his team will have a third chance to beat the Mountaineers, a matchup that is likely to occur if Belmont-Gilford returns to its winning ways in post-season play.
Belmont-Gilford had been having a great season through January 21, when the team traveled to Portsmouth for a 7-0 victory that improved the Bulldogs' record to eight wins, two losses. The next three games were against two of the division's strongest, though. Belmont-Gilford lost to Souhegan by one goal on January 26, then came close to stealing a game at Berlin on Wednesday of last week. So, with the chance to host Berlin on Saturday, Londer and his team were hoping to make a statement by spoiling the Mountaineers' perfect record.
For 35 minutes, it was looking like Belmont-Gilford would have that chance, staying either tied or within a goal of the visitors for most of the game. With 9:29 remaining in the third, defenseman Brogan Hurst fired a shot from near the blue line that made its way past the Berlin keeper to tie the score, 2-2.
Londer said his team had come into the game with the strategy of neutralizing Connor Jewett, Berlin's leading scorer and whom Londer considers the division's best player. Jewett was kept quiet for most of the game, which Belmont-Gilford had accomplished by constantly keeping a defender on him. With 7:28 remaining in the third period, though, Jewett broke free from his captor and ended the tie. Belmont-Gilford then had an opportunity to answer when Berlin's Justin Vien was sent to the penalty box for high-sticking, but it was Jewett who would score during the power play, stealing the puck and scoring on a breakaway with 6:16 left.
Belmont-Gilford was given yet another opportunity when Berlin was called for tripping, with 6:09 remaining, giving the Bulldogs a two-man advantage. Again, though, it was a Berlin player – this time Trevor Leborgne – who forced a turnover and broke toward the net for a goal, widening the margin to three goals. From there, things "got out of hand," said Londer. Berlin scored a total of six goals in the final seven and a half minutes, including a third score by Jewett. The final score was eight goals for Berlin and two for Belmont-Gilford.
The first goal for the Bulldogs was scored by forward Andrew D'Amour, assisted by defenseman Will Mahoney, which tied the game at 1 goal each during the first period. Belmont-Gilford came out strong for the second period, keeping the puck in Berlin's zone and finding several quality shots, including a couple of breakaway opportunities by Jeremy D'Amour. "If he gets in the clear, ninety-nine percent of the time it's in the back of the net," Londer said about his speedy forward. Jeremy was frustrated on Saturday night by the Berlin keeper's glove, and by the end of the third period his frustration was mounting. With 40 seconds left in the game, Jeremy laid a check on Chris Fortin that left the Berlin player on his back, spread-eagle and unconscious for several tense moments. Fortin was ultimately able to skate off the ice, with assistance. Jeremy was called for a major penalty, excluding him from participation in Belmont-Gilford's upcoming game against Con-Val on Saturday.
Looking back on the game, Londer is able to take encouragement from his team's most lop-sided loss of the season. For most of the game, his players were able to make Jewett a non-factor. "Our goal was to limit what he did." And, as long as Belmont-Gilford was able to keep Jewett away from the net, the Bulldogs were a match for the Mountaineers.
Another lesson for Belmont-Gilford, Londer added, was the significance of momentum. The Bulldogs seemed to be in a strong position, out-shooting the Mountaineers in the second period and looking at a power-play advantage in the third. Certain events can act as a hinge, though, swinging favors in the other direction. Such was the case with the Mountaineer's goal, scored when Berlin had two players in the penalty box. "The momentum shifted, they were on fire, and we hung our heads down and stopped playing."
Ironically, the Bulldogs now find themselves cheering for Berlin, at least for the remainder of the season. Belmont-Gilford is finding itself in a fight for the third seed in the playoffs. Other contendors for that spot include Kennett, Moultonborough-Inter-Lakes and Souhegan, all of whom play Berlin before the start of the playoffs. Londer has a week of practice to prepare for Con-Val, a team that has only one win this year. If Belmont-Gilford finishes in the top four Division III teams, the Bulldogs will host a playoff game.
With less than a month left in the regular season, it appears that the Division III title is Berlin's to lose. Therefore, if Belmont-Gilford can find its stride again in the playoffs, they'll likely find themselves opposing Berlin again.
"We're just trying to get back on track," Londer said, likening regular-season games to pop quizzes, revealing areas where the team needs to make improvements to prepare for a run at the divisional title. "We're chipping away, it's a quiz. We're going to study and work hard and be ready to go come Saturday... We're getting ready for the final in March, get the 'W' when it counts."