LINCOLN – Head coach Jim Riel claimed back in November he was thrilled that his Lincoln High icemen had been “demoted” from the state's top tier to Division II.
The reason: He felt the overall talent level would give his Lions a more equal chance to compete against most teams.
Turns out, Riel was right. He always knew his squad had a chance to earn a berth in the championship series, but to do so with an unbeaten D-II record? That he didn't expect.
The Lions (21-1-1 overall) suffered their only defeat of the season to non-league foe Burrillville in its Winter Classic back on New Year's Eve (5-4 in a shootout); their only other “blemish” occurred on Feb. 1, when Cumberland skated to a 3-3 stalemate at Adelard Arena.
Top-seeded Lincoln will take on Prout School (20-6-0 overall) in the R.I. Division II Tournament best-of-three finals beginning Thursday night at 6:15, with Game 2 slated for Saturday at 2 p.m., both at Brown University's Meehan Auditorium.
(The “if-necessary” clash is scheduled for Sunday at the same time).
Riel believes his kids will be more than ready to answer the bell, especially after sweeping the Clippers in the semifinal set by scores of 1-0 and 4-1 this past weekend.
“I thought we played pretty well Friday night, but Saturday night was the best we've played all season,” Riel stated. “The most important thing was that we got pucks down low, and we won 90 percent of the battles in the corners. Almost every time we did, we completely flooded the net with a lot of (scoring) chances.
“Saturday was the pinnacle of what we've been trying to do all year,” he added. “We put that product on the ice, and to do it in such a high-intensity environment, the semifinals, Game 2 on a Saturday night, showed the poise and maturity that our group has.
“Truthfully, I'm glad we moved to D-II. The top eight teams in our division have given us more competition than a couple of D-I teams we faced last year, and – most importantly – with the undefeated season, it's been tough. As the wins racked up, we've had to learn that we're going to get the very best from every single team every night.
“Now it's Prout, and I think our boys have done a pretty good job of taking that role in stride, especially the last month or so.”
The Lions have battled the Crusaders only once this season, back on Jan. 21 at Portsmouth Abbey, and left it with a 4-2 triumph.
“I thought Prout played us tougher than any D-I team we've faced all season,” Riel offered. “That includes Burrillville on New Year's Eve (the day after Lincoln defeated fellow D-I/Eccleston opponent Barrington, 3-1, in the Classic's first game). We outshot Burrillville, 50-24, so we more than doubled them up.
“That was a back-and-forth game (against Prout); we were down by a goal twice, and we probably spent more time in our defensive zone that we have all season,” he continued. “They've got a pretty good freshman (Austin Gemma) in net, and we scouted them a couple of times this year; we thought (as a coaching staff) he gave up too many rebounds.
“I will say he's got some solid upperclassmen playing defense in front of him, and they've helped him out. What we need to do is continue to get the pucks deep into the offensive zone, then sustain our defensive play against them. We haven't had to do that much this year.”
The Crusaders are led offensively by senior Matthew Peacock, the squad's top scorer, and whom Riel calls a “solid threat” and “easily their top player.
“He sees the game so well, and he has the skills necessary to accomplish what he wants to,” he said. “It's one thing to be fast and have good hands, but when you understand the game as well as he does, well, that's the full package.”
With Peacock leading the way, Prout has outscored its opponents, 98-49, or by an average 2-to-1 margin, in its 26 contests.
The Lions, on the other hand, have mustered 101 goals for and just 30 against all winter.
Riel credits his two-goalie system of sophomores Chris Leclaire and David Jessey for those impressive statistics – Leclaire closed the campaign with an 11-1-1 record, and Jessey 10-0-0.
“There aren't many teams out there who do that, but they've played so well,” he said. “We've gone back and forth with them all year until the semifinals against Cumberland. Chris played so well in Game 1, it only made sense to come back to him on Saturday.
“David actually played against Prout last time, and he played 'lights out,' so I don't know what I'm going to do yet (for a starting keeper). We'll see how practice goes this week, and then the coaches will get together to make a final determination. Regardless, we have all the confidence in the world in both of them.
“There's a very real possibility they could split this series, too.”
Lincoln will rely upon stellar senior forwards Ryan Krohto, Jerzy Polak and Drew Wood (the latter two are co-captains) to drive the puck past Gemma.
“Like I said, when we face them, we're going to have to make sure we get the puck deep into the offensive zone; the strength of our team is our forecheck, and we have to make them skate the full length of the ice,” he noted. “We can't give them any easy turnovers. If we do, they'll make us pay.”