PAWTUCKET — Minutes after Tolman High had finished its practice Monday afternoon at Lynch Arena, head coach Steve Reynolds and volunteer assistant Tom Vecoli followed their players to the locker room for a team meeting.
There, they discussed how they must approach their tune-up workouts before battling unbeaten and top-seeded West Warwick-Exeter/West Greenwich Co-op in the first game of their best-of-three R.I. Division III Tournament championship series; that's slated for noon Saturday at Brown University’s Meehan Auditorium.
First, however, Reynolds spoke of how well his third-ranked Tigers had played in a two-game sweep of No. 2-seed and rival East Providence on Saturday night.
“I've got to say I thought (senior captain/defenseman) Chris Baldwin not only played well on Saturday (in Tolman's 6-1 pasting of the Townies), but he's had a great overall playoff run,” he stated. “And it's not just Chris. They're all doing their jobs. The whole team, top to bottom, has stepped up its game the last couple of weeks.
“It's a great rivalry, but they've got the best of us over the past few years; they're a pretty young team, we're senior-heavy and I think that was one of the keys to the series,” he added. “In the first game (Friday night at Cranston Vets Rink), we were tied 1-1 going into the third period. We've been in that situation multiple times before, but we had (junior) Jared Pedro and (senior) Brandon Speight both score quick goals, and we won it, 3-1.
“Coach Vecoli, who's helping us out, did a great job of motivating the boys; that win on Friday showed us we were battle-tested, and I think that's why we came out the way we did Saturday. That's the first time in a while we've really put away an East Providence team. We went up, 3-0, in the first, and we knew they were going to have to take some chances offensively if they wanted to get back into it.
“We just had to be patient with our defensive sets while continuing to attack offensively. It was a solid game for us; we didn't make many mistakes. If I had to grade us, I'd give us a 90 (out of 100) through the first two periods on Friday, but it definitely was a 100 in the third period (of Game 1), and it carried over to Saturday night.”
Reynolds fully understands what it will take to upend the Wizards, who closed their D-III regular season with a perfect 16-0 mark, and lost only once all winter, that a 4-1 decision to non-league foe East Greenwich on Jan. 11.
And, after its two semifinal victories over Narragansett (by tallies of 5-2 and 6-2), WW/EWG (18-1 overall) has outscored its opponents by a whopping 154-22 count.
Senior forward and tri-captain Antonio Rei led the entire league in scoring, while sophomore netminder Ivan Forcier has been a standout between the pipes, posting 10 shutouts in those 19 tilts.
Still, Tolman – who will enter the set at 15-4-1 overall – took the Wizards to overtime back on Dec. 28 at Lynch Arena before suffering a 5-4 defeat (Baldwin didn't play in that one); it later dropped a 4-1 decision (with an empty-net tally) at Benny Mageira Rink.
“They've also got the top-scoring defense in the division, too,” Reynolds noted. “They're just an excellent team, and they're undefeated in the league, but I absolutely think we can play with them. No. 1, like I said, we're senior-heavy, and we've learned how to win. We're getting hot at the right time, which is very important.
“I think we've put a tremendous amount of pressure on ourselves,” he continued, referring to the fact this will be the last season ever for the Tolman hockey program. “They have a ton of school pride, and they want to be remembered. They want to win a Division III state championship in their final year and go out on top.
“They want to put the school and the city on their backs to do this in their final go-around. We just have to play our style of hockey. We have to be fast and aggressive, get the head man the puck. We've got to win all of our individual battles, and we've got to remain disciplined. We have to stay out of the (penalty) box.”
Reynolds claimed Rei is a stellar, finesse-style hockey player, and his entire club must know where he is at all times to squelch any goal-scoring possibilities.
“Defensively, we've really stepped it up a few notches,” he said. “We're moving the puck very well through the zones. We were a very fast hockey team on Saturday night, and we're going to have to continue doing that if we want to have a chance.
“The good news is we're a very well-conditioned group,” he continued. “We may dress 13, but we really only have nine players (excluding senior goalkeeper Jared DaSilva) who see a lot of action, but playing 15 minutes (per period) hasn't hurt us yet. I think we wore down E.P. because we have the legs.”
Game 2 of the series will be contested at noon Sunday at Brown University, with the “if-necessary” tilt scheduled for Monday night at 7:30 at the same site.