PAWTUCKET — The instant the final horn sounded, the Tolman High players on the Lynch Arena ice and those on the bench raced to senior netminder Jared DaSilva to mob him, celebrate perhaps the most-craved win ever recorded in school hockey history.
Months after receiving word this would be the squad's last hoorah, due to a dwindling number of incoming freshmen and only a few underclassmen on the bandwagon, the senior-oriented Tigers wanted to end it all in style.
They did just that with a tenacious, demonstrative 6-1 triumph over rival East Providence in Game 2 of this R.I. Division III Tournament semifinal set.
With the verdict, third-seeded Tolman preempted a possible rubber tilt, closing the set with a two-game sweep; it now will battle top-ranked and unbeaten West Warwick-Exeter/West Greenwich in the state championship final, which begins Saturday at noon Brown University's Meehan Auditorium.
Game 2 of the series is Sunday at noon, and if there is a Game 3, it will be on Tuesday night at 7:30 p.m.
Junior Jared Pedro manufactured a spectacular hat trick, while senior tri-captain Chris Baldwin chipped in a goal and four assists and junior Teddy Reall a goal and a feed.
The news of Tolman's demise could have cast a pall over the program; instead, head coach Steve Reynold's bunch decided to postpone the funeral and move ahead, business as usual.
“This is it, yes,” long-time athletic director John Scanlon stated while waiting for the icemen to roll off the surface. “I think they had a little more motivation this season, and it certainly showed. This is a fantastic group of kids. We have guys who grew up playing hockey, and we've got some who joined the team just to help out. Most of those are guys who also play baseball.
“We're going to graduate eight seniors, and five other kids play other sports,” he added. “They all were keys to this season.”
The Tigers haven't qualified for a state final since the 2004-05 campaign, that after snagging two consecutive D-III crowns the previous two winters. Now they'll return with a most prized possession at stake.
“I think this just shows the character of this group, what they've been through all year,” Reynolds stated after they improved to 15-4-1 overall. “They're tough mentally and physically, and all of that hard work has paid off. With the number of guys we carry (13 in all), these guys will look over their shoulder and know no one is really there.
“But they've exhibited great leadership, and they should be praised for that. I'm so proud of them.”
When asked how exciting it is for the team to garner a berth in the title series, given no future, Reynolds grinned, then offered, “I don't know; I'm speechless on that, but it's definitely fitting. It just seems like this team is different. Coaching them has been a joy. What a way to go out! Still, we've got some business we want to finish.
“We've had goals we've wanted to achieve all season, and we keep stepping up the rungs to that ladder,” he continued. “Now we're going to try to achieve the ultimate goal.”
Even Townies' mentor Kevin Croke admitted this will be a meeting he's going to miss.
“Whenever you get Tolman and E.P. together, man, it's special,” he stated, sitting with his assistants in his empty dressing room. “These are great games, this is a great series, a tremendous rivalry. To see it die, it breaks my heart. It's a lot of fun. Sure, it's hectic and stressful, but it's terrific. I know a lot of people who'll miss it.”
Croke's crew came out flying; in fact, sophomore forward Ryan Costa needed only 19 seconds after the puck drop to drill a slap shot at senior keeper Jared DaSilva, who promptly made a superb stick save.
The younger Pedro, however, gave the Tigers a 1-0 cushion a mere 39 ticks later; he cruised in on a breakaway, courtesy of Baldwin's masterful pass up ice, and knocked a wrister through the “five-hole” provided by sophomore goalie Marc LaValley.
Tolman also took advantage of its first power-play opportunity after sophomore Jared Estrella had been whistled for holding at the 11:34 mark. Baldwin hustled to the mid-stripe, fed Pedro and the latter tucked it past LaValley for the 2-0 advantage.
With 4:49 remaining, Baldwin rang the right pipe with a slapper, and hit the crossbar with a blistering wrist shot; fortunately for him, the carom dribbled past the goal line, and the Tigers had cushioned their lead to 3-0 at the 3:25 mark.
That's how the period ended, but not before Tolman senior tri-captain Ryan Pedro had to begin the middle session in the box due to a roughing infraction.
Only 59 seconds in, E.P.'s Costa rushed in on a two-on-one, rifling a slapper at DaSilva, who managed a stellar deflection, and Tolman eventually killed the penalty. The Townies, though, took advantage of their third man advantage when – with junior Kris Wallace in the box for interference – Estrella poked home a perfect pass from classmate Kyle Marquis at 4:19.
Immediately after the tally, a physical skirmish ensued, and E.P. ended up with two men in the box (Estrella and Tyler Maxwell for roughing) and the Tigers a trio (seniors Ryan Deighan and Jason Maynard for the same; DaSilva also had been called for a pair of roughing and unsportsmanlike-conduct minors, junior Richie Marshall serving both).
Just three ticks before that penalty was up, Costa rushed down the left side, made a remarkable juke of a defender and whacked a shot at DaSilva, who made an amazing save on his backside.
Pedro registered his third with a slapper from deep inside the right circle, the assists going to Baldwin and fellow senior defenseman Kevin Tracey, at 7:49, and classmate Brandon Speight tallied his lone goal 4:33 later.
The second period closed with the Tigers ahead, 5-1, and with the two combatants sharing 12 penalties for 22 minutes. The contest ended with a total of 16 infractions, good for a whopping 40 minutes (one a third-period, 10-minute major for unsportsmanlike conduct).
Tolman started the final session by icing the puck on several occasions, though it looked as if Costa would tighten the gap to 5-2, but his point-blank backhand drilled the right post.
The Tigers iced the contest when Reall converted passes from Maynard and Marshall with 1:11 left.
LaValley collected 25 saves in the defeat, while DaSilva thwarted 21 shots.
“They had three goals in the first period, and it's tough to dig yourself out of that hole,” Croke sighed. “I thought we started a little tentative. We had more energy than we showed (Friday) night, (a 3-1 loss), but Tolman had more.
“They were fighting for their survival, and I think that's why they had more energy,” he added. “They won a lot of the one-on-one battles, they beat us to the puck and did what they had to do. They were fighting for their lives, while we were fighting to play another day. They just wanted it more.”
Explained Reynolds: “(Pedro) is our offensive weapon, and has been all year. He's improved immensely in all facets of the game, but he also does a lot of other things that don't show up on the scoresheet – fore-checking, back-checking, passing, the power play. He's a complete player.
“And I can't say enough about DaSilva,” he continued. “He came to us his sophomore year, and I think he was out of hockey at the time, I give a lot of credit to Coach (P.J.) Goulet (a former Tolman goalie). He's worked with Jared a lot with fundamentals. He's a whole different player than when he started.
“We dress 13 kids, but we only roll out about nine and the keeper. They get 95 percent of the playing time. Still, they're well-conditioned, they put in the work every day at practice. They finish their sprints and they work hard. Now they're reaping the rewards of that dedication.”