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Aaron Racino and the North Haven boys’ ice hockey squad returned to the ice last week following a team quarantine. After losing its first game back, North Haven earned a win versus Watertown-Pomperaug in its regular-season finale and then beat that same team again in the SCC-SWC Division II quarterfinals to advance into the semis. (File photo by Kelley Fryer/The Courier | Buy This Photo)
Junior Jake Hines scored the game-winning goal with just 32 seconds left to lift North Haven to a 5-4 victory over Watertown-Pomperaug in its last game of the regular season on March 17. (File photo by Kelley Fryer/The Courier | Buy This Photo)
Senior captain Eli Brubacher and the North Haven boys’ ice hockey team are playing Lyman Hall in the SCC-SWC Division II semifinals after earning a 4-0 win versus Watertown-Pomperaug in the quarterfinal round on March 20. (File photo by Kelley Fryer/The Courier | Buy This Photo)
Senior Mason Sullivan had a goal with an assist when North Haven edged out Watertown-Pomperaug by a 5-4 score in its regular-season final last week. (File photo by Kelley Fryer/The Courier | Buy This Photo)
After getting out to a hot start this winter, the North Haven boys' ice hockey squad suffered a major setback when the team went into quarantine due to COVID-19 exposure at the end of February. North Haven's players desperately wanted to get back on the ice and complete the season on their own terms and, last week, they finally got that opportunity and made the most of it in a major way.
North Haven returned to the ice to play its final two games of the regular season and then won its opening contest in the SCC-SWC Division II Tournament last week. North Haven finished its regular season with a split by taking a 4-1 loss to Sheehan and earning a 5-4 win versus Watertown-Pomperaug (W-P). Head Coach Chris Avena's team went on to face W-P again in the quarterfinals of the Conference Tournament and prevailed by a 4-0 score. North Haven has an overall record of 6-2 as the team gets ready to face Sheehan in the semifinals.
Coach Avena said it was a tough blow to take when North Haven was forced to go into quarantine. Avena and his athletes stayed connected through email and a few Zoom calls throughout those weeks.
Players remained optimistic about getting another chance to lace up and compete this season. When the team received the green light, Avena said everyone was revved to get back out there and work toward the goal of winning a conference title.
"We just kept saying that we still have everything that we set forth to do this year in front of us to be accomplished. The only thing shortened was the number of games played," Coach Avena said. "Everything that we set our minds to do this year was still there. So, we were thankful for that and were itching to get back together to pursue those goals."
North Haven had minimal practice time to get ready for its first game back and was still missing several players when it faced Sheehan as the road team at Northford Ice Pavilion on March 15.
In the squad's first contest since Feb. 20, North Haven took a 4-1 loss to the Titans.
After Sheehan grabbed an early 1-0 lead, North Haven tied the score when senior captain Eli Brubacher scored on assists from senior Aaron Racino and junior Jake Hines to make it 1-1 after one. Following a scoreless second period, Sheehan scored three goals during the third period to come away with the 4-1 victory.
While he was pleased to see his team take the ice, Coach Avena knew that it was going to be a challenge for North Haven to face such a solid Sheehan squad in its first game in nearly a month.
"[The Sheehan game] was a little tough. We all wanted to play and get a game in, but we were hoping to face a team other than Sheehan, and that's just a compliment to the them," said Avena. "We were licking our wounds a bit."
North Haven didn't have to wait long to play another game. On March 17, Coach Avena and company were back at Northford Ice Pavilion to host W-P for their regular-season finale. North Haven, which had the majority of its roster back for this matchup, trailed 4-3 midway through the third period, but scored the last two goals of the game to get the 5-4 victory. Hines netted the game-winner for North Haven with just 32 seconds remaining in the contest.
Earlier in the game, Hines put North Haven on the board when he scored from Racino and Brubacher at the 3:36 mark of the first period for a 1-0 lead. W-P scored a goal late in the period to make it 1-1 after one.
North Haven came out flying in the second period as Brubacher scored from Racino just 1:04 into the frame for a 2-1 lead. A little more than a minute later, senior Mason Sullivan scored from Racino and Brubacher to give North Haven a 3-1 advantage. W-P came back with two goals late in the period to tie up the game at 3-3 heading in into the third.
W-P scored a goal to take a 4-3 lead with 8:32 to play in the game. However, North Haven mounted a rally that started when sophomore Alex Petersen scored from junior Justin Pniewski and sophomore Tommy Guidone to tie it up at 4-4 with 6:39 remaining. Then,with just 32 seconds on the clock, Hines lit the lamp on assists from Sullivan and Brubacher to give North Haven a 5-4 lead that held up as the final score.
Aside from Hines's two goals, Brubacher had a goal with three assists, Racino also dished out three assists, and Sullivan scored a goal to go with an assist in the victory. Senior captain goalie Andrew Sacco earned the win in net for North Haven.
Coach Avena was thrilled to see his team rally for the victory in game that his team needed to win.
"We played that game like a playoff game. We went in like it was a must-win. We knew that we needed to make sacrifices to win that game and went into it with a tournament mentality," Avena said. "It felt great, and spirits were high. We showed the ability to face adversity, overcome adversity within a game, and come out on top. We did it a few times last year, but hadn't necessarily had to it this year, so we felt really good coming out of that game."
On March 20, North Haven opened up in the SCC-SWC Division II Tournament as the No. 3
seed by playing a quarterfinal game against W-P, the No. 6 seed. W-P had just earned a win over the East Haven co-op in the first round, through which North Haven had a bye into quarters. In its quarterfinal contest, North Haven posted a 4-0 shutout over W-P to advance to the semifinal.
Guidone scored on an assist from senior captain Will Fiore to give North Haven a 1-0 lead at the 5:17 mark of the first period. North Haven made it 2-0 when Petersen scored from junior Ayden Mindlin at the 13:02 mark. North Haven extended its lead to 3-0 on Fiore's goal from Guidone and senior captain Nick Howlett at the 5:57 mark of the second period. Later in the frame, Racino scored on an assist from Hines to give North Haven a 4-0 advantage at the 11:42 mark. North Haven played an exceptional defensive game and received strong goaltending from Sacco to completely shut down W-P in the third period and prevent any chance of a comeback.
North Haven played No. 2 seed Sheehan in the semifinals at Northford Ice Pavilion on March 24
(after press time). With a victory, North Haven would play the winner of No. 1 seed Lyman Hall and No. 5 Cheshire in the championship game on Saturday, March 27 at 4 p.m.
Regardless of how the rest of the tournament plays out, Coach Avena appreciates the fact that North Haven is able to finish its season on the ice instead of in quarantine. North Haven saw its 2020 campaign come to an abrupt when the Division II State Tournament was canceled prior to the quarterfinal round as the COVID-19 pandemic was taking hold. With some SCC teams unable to compete in this year's Conference Tournament due to their own quarantines, Avena and his athletes feel glad that they are getting some closure from the 2021 season one way or the other.
"I think we were very fortunate to be a team that had the ability to finish its season on the ice," said Avena. "As a senior, that is all you can ask for, especially after last year."