PAWTUCKET — The last time East Providence High faced Division III rival Tolman, way back on Dec. 21, head coach Kevin Croke's crew held a 3-1 cushion in the final three minutes of regulation.
The Townies, however, allowed two late goals, and had to settle for a 3-3 overtime stalemate with its foe.
Croke reminded his team of that previous meeting prior to Saturday night's rematch at Lynch Arena, one in which both contingents entered with league marks of 8-2-1 and aspired for the upper hand in gaining lone possession of second place behind West Warwick-Exeter/West Greenwich Co-op (12-0 in league action).
Turns out, defending state D-III champion East Providence responded just the way he had hoped. Senior co-captain Kevin Hall manufactured two goals and assisted on another as the Townies eked out a thrilling 3-2 victory.
With the triumph, E.P. improved to 10-3-1 overall, but – more importantly – 9-2-1 in D-III. The Tigers fell to 8-3-1 in both categories.
“Any win against Tolman is a good one,” Croke insisted afterward. “This gives us the opportunity to distance ourselves from them (in the standings). We had lost to West Warwick with 45 seconds left in regulation, and Tolman lost to them 28 seconds into overtime. Those 73 seconds put (Tolman) one point ahead of us because of the point they gained from the OT loss.
“This was a must win, and I told the kids that,” he added. “We had to control our own destiny, and now we've done that. We both have identical schedules the rest of the way, as we have to play Ponaganset, Scituate, Woonsocket and Warwick Vets.
“If we win out, we'll get the No. 2 seed and the coveted first-round bye. That would be huge, give us the chance to get some rest.”
In the end, sophomore foward Ryan Costa broke a 1-1 deadlock with 7:26 remaining in the third session. Hall had sent a pass in Costa's direction, and – from inside the slot – he ripped a wrister over Tolman senior goalkeeper Jared DaSilva's left shoulder.
Only 2:56 later, freshman Brynne Costa (one of three girls representing the Townies) issued a feed to Hall, who had been stationed by the right post. The latter immediately tipped it past DaSilva to push the lead to two.
Immediately after that tally, Tigers' head coach Steve Reynolds Jr. called a timeout, this with 4:30 left in regulation, and gave his players the plan for success.
It didn't take long to work. Just 42 ticks after Hall had notched his second, junior forward Jared Pedro received a pass from senior Ryan Deighan (following senior Brandon Speight's feed) at the E.P. blue line, skated in, juked a defender and drilled a wrister over Townie sophomore goalie Marc LaValley's shoulder.
With 3:48 remaining, the Tigers had sliced the deficit to 3-2.
Less than a minute later, and with Tolman possessing the puck, the two officials had their right hands raised, indicating a hook by Brynne Costa at mid-ice. In the interim, Speight got open and whistled a wrist shot at LaValley, who smothered the puck in his midsection.
At the 2:51 mark, Costa skated into the penalty box, giving the Tigers their third power play. Over the next 90 seconds, though, the quartet of Kevin Hall, Costa, sophomore Kyle Marquis and junior Josh Letendre did a superlative job of killing the infraction.
With approximately 52 seconds left, Reynolds Jr. pulled DaSilva for the 6-on-5 advantage, and – only 12.7 ticks existing on the scoreboard clock – Speight and Townie senior tri-captain Troy Derrick took a faceoff to the right of LaValley.
A Townie retrieved it and drove it down ice toward the empty cage, leaving E.P. celebrating the critical decision, the Tigers temporarily downtrodden.
“After the game, I just told the kids that one of our goals entering the season was to get the first or second seed, but now that's probably gone,” Reynolds Jr. stated. “I also said that, if we wanted to sew up that third seed, we'd have to win out, then win our first playoff series. After that, our state championship run would go through E.P.
“If we play our style of hockey, we should be able to win the rest (of our tilts),” he continued. “It would take a miracle for them to lose (one of the remaining four games).”
When asked what enthused him the most about the verdict, Croke noted, “I thought we skated well, that we outskated them and were the faster team. I'm very pleased. You beat Tolman, you have to be. They're a great team, well-coached, big, strong and they're senior-oriented. I mean, with us, we skate two seniors, one junior, seven sophomores and a freshman; they're the ones who see the regular shifts.
“Like I said, the last time we played them, we were up, 3-1, with three minutes left, and they came back to tie. Here, we're up, 3-1, and there was 4:30 left,” he added. “I told the kids, 'We don't need anything else! We need defense, smart defense! They're going to come out with reckless abandon,' and they did.
“They had Speight and Deighan and Jared Pedro, and Jared, he's a magician with the puck. He can make it dance for them. Fortunately, he didn't do it again.”
Following a scoreless opening stanza, Speight needed only five seconds into the second to get the Pawtucketers the lead; he whacked a slapper off of LaValley's left forearm and into the netting.
Hall, however, knotted the contest at 1-1 when he knocked a hard, forehand wrister from the right circle past DaSilva.
All that did was set up the Townies' third-period heroics – even with the late shorthanded stint.
EP's LaValley closed with 16 saves, the much-improved DaSilva with 19.