WOONSOCKET – The No. 2 Ponaganset hockey team averaged six goals a game during the regular season and poured in 16 goals in a sweep of Portsmouth in the first round of the Division II playoffs.
But, Friday night in Game 1 of the semifinals at Levy Rink, the Chieftains couldn’t find a way past St. Raphael goalie Jeff Pimental for 35 minutes. The St. Raphael netminder made 25 saves in the first two periods to help No. 3 PSW open up a three-goal advantage. The high-octane Chieftains scored twice in the final period, but the goals were merely cosmetic.
Pimental made 36 saves, while Bennett Hicks had two goals and Cam Yee, Ben Force and Michael Barone each had a goal and an assist in a 6-2 victory.
“We made a couple of tweaks to our system because those three guys [Nathan Watts, Ryan Watts and Jacob Lincourt] are the top three scorers in the league,” PSW coach Kevin Sullivan said. “We made a few tweaks to our system and it worked. The last time we played them they burned us with two short-handed goals. We’re not a slouch team.”
“Our defense played great. We played better than last time, I’ll tell you that,” Pimental said. “We played well as a group. This group is very confident right now because we have the momentum. This game was certainly easier than the last time we played them.”
The biggest difference between the 5-4 victory over the Chieftains on Feb. 16 at Rhode Island Sports Center and Friday night’s superb performance was the presence of Yee, who missed time at the end of the season. Yee delivered a beautiful pass to set up Hicks for the game’s opening goal in the first period and he scored a power-play goal 2:48 into the second period to double the visitor’s lead.
“Cam was great tonight,” Sullivan. “That first goal was huge, especially because it was the first game of the series. That goal came because of a beautiful pass from Mr. Yee. It was a really smart play, just a smart play. That really got us going.”
The Saints can clinch a spot in the Division II final for the first time since 2014 with a victory tonight at Pawtucket’s Lynch Arena at 8:30. Ponaganset, which was without its starting goalie and another key player, hasn’t lost two games in a row all season, but the Chieftains have yet to figure out how to slow down the rampant Saints.
“We do not want to come back here on Monday,” Pimental said. “We’re at home and we’re a very good home team.”
The road side took a lead it would never relinquish just 2:37 into the game when Yee flipped a puck from his own zone into the Ponaganset zone where Kaihler skated on to it and fired a shot on reserve goalie Ryan Kut’s (27 saves) net. Kut made the save, but Bennett Hicks was on hand to knock the rebound into the net.
PSW’s vaunted power play went to work early in the second period, as St. Raphael defenseman Drew Andella was rewarded for a hard attack to the net when his rebound fell to Yee, who needed two chances to double the lead at 2:48. PSW went into intermission with a three-goal lead when Force’s shot was saved right into the path of Aidan Beckett for a goal.
“Scoring early is huge,” Pimental said. “When you do that, you have the momentum. When that happens they’re chasing us and we have control.”
Ponaganset found a lifeline just 5:28 into the third period when Lincourt and the Watts twins created a goal. Nathan Watts fed fellow senior Ryan Watts for a goal to make the score 3-1. PSW needed just 24 seconds to rebuild its three-goal lead when Kaihler won a face off and Barone quickly put a shot past Kut. Force increased the lead to 5-1 at 8:03
Nathan Watts created a power-play goal for Matt Carlson to make it 5-2, but Hicks scored an empty-net goal with just four seconds left in the game to send the Saints back to Pawtucket with their most impressive victory of the season. Dating back to a 3-2 overtime loss to No. 1 Cumberland, the Saints have now won seven straight games.
“I just want to see the kids keep do what they’re doing right now,” Sullivan said. “We’ve been playing some really good hockey for a while now. If you came to our practices, you would see how focused the kids are. Practices are fun to watch because the kids are getting better every game. We got better this week, so we are improving.”
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PSW 1 2 3 - 6
Ponaganset 0 0 2 – 2
First period – PSW, Bennett Hicks (Ben Kaihler, Cam Yee), 2:37.
Second period – PSW, Yee (Drew Andella, Michael Barone), pp, 2:48; PSW, Aidan Beckett (Ben Force, Dominick Reposa), 5:43.
Third period P, Ryan Watts (Nathan Watts, Jacob Lincourt), 5:28; PSW, Barone (Kaihler), 5:52; PSW, Force (Reposa), 8:03; P, Matt Carlson (Nathan Watts, Matt Meinertz), pp, 11:04 : PSW, Hicks (Jack Lemire), enm 14:56.
Saves – PSW, Jeff Pimental (36 saves); P, Ryan Kut (27 saves)