By Tris Wykes
WEST LEBANON – Defensively depleted Saturday, the Lebanon-Stevens-Mount Royal boys hockey team made its thin rearguard ranks a moot point during a 5-1 defeat of John Stark-Hopkinton at Campion Rink.
The NHIAA Division III playoff victory advanced the Raiders to a Wednesday semifinal against Berlin-Gorham at Concord’s Everett Arena. Lebanon and the Mountaineers (12-2-1) met four times during the regular season, the Raiders holding a 2-1-1 advantage.
Saturday’s contest was scoreless after a period and tied 1-1 late in the second frame when LSMR’s Griffin Auch sizzled a snap shot from the left circle and under the crossbar with 25 seconds remaining. The junior posted a hat trick and assisted on his team’s two other tallies.
The General Hawks (1-5) were crumbling because of fatigue by the second intermission. John Stark-Hopkinton, the 2018 division champion, had only 12 players, including goaltender Caysen Allard, who made 46 saves.
The chance to practice and play more often with club teams lured some potential players away before the season’s start and half a dozen others opted out because of Covid-19 concerns, said John Stark athletic director Mark Searles.
“Their guys were worn down and couldn’t skate any longer,” said Lebanon-Stevens-Mount Royal coach Jim Damren. “We had a lot of shots and their goalie could only make so many saves.”
Damren said there wasn’t much tension after his team failed to take the lead during the opening 15 minutes and then fell into a tie six minutes into the second stanza.
“Even after their goal, I felt like we were in control of the game,” said Damren, whose team is 9-3-1. “Our game plan was to chip pucks deep and forecheck the crap out of them.
“We were winning puck battles and creating plenty of opportunities and I assumed we would eventually score some goals.”
Preventing them might be LSMR’s vulnerability the rest of the way, even with talented goaltender Toby Cromwell. Junior defenseman Luke Greene is missing the playoffs because of a family trip to Alabama, leaving the Raiders with three first-year regulars among the four blueliners who see frequent ice time.
Damren benched Greene for the regular-season finale at Berlin to give sophomore Ryan West shifts in preparation for the playoffs. The diminutive Stevens product started the season in the top four before giving way to Liam Ouelette after a few games.
West is paired with veteran rearguard Jake Kriplin. However, the senior loves to rush the puck and is good at it, sometimes leaving his inexperienced partner back alone.
“If he sees an opening, he goes,” Damren said. “I have to reign him in every once in a while to make sure he’s remembering that it’s defense first, but he makes good choices, so it’s hard to fault him.”
LSMR’s second defensive pair includes first-year starter Andrew Danehy, a slight sophomore who’s improved enormously during the season. His partner is the tall and rangy Ouelette, a Mount Royal junior who’s also progressing but who sometimes struggles with his balance. None of this is ideal, but it’s not as if the Raiders can recall reinforcements from their minor-league affiliate.
“You’ve got to go with the hand you’re dealt and we have to have solid, defensive-zone play from our forwards,” Damren said. “I stress to our (defensemen) to keep it simple. Force plays to the outside, don’t throw the puck up the middle and don’t panic.
“Try to get the puck on your forehand, not your backhand. Worst-case scenario, ice the puck and we regroup.”
Lebanon opened the scoring five minutes into the second period when Andrew Duany ripped in a wrist shot from the right circle. The play was nicely set up by Hunter Christian’s poise with the puck a moment before, the junior holding it long enough for Duany to slide into strong shooting position.
The General Hawks forged a 1-1 tie a minute later when Ethan Molnar took the puck away from West along the boards and at the LSMR blue line, blew through the right circle and beat Cromwell at the far post. Auch put the hosts ahead to stay just before the second intermission and Kriplin wristed in a high shot from the right point and through a screen 14 seconds into the third period.
Kriplin scored again with 8 minutes, 26 seconds to play, working a give-and-go with Auch that ended with Kriplin at the right post, tapping in a return feed from below the left circle.
“That was outstanding,” Damren said. “A lot of times earlier in the season, he might not have gotten that puck back, but he did and it was a heck of a hockey play.”
Praise for Auch’s increased unselfishness is warranted. The Grantham product, who scored Saturday’s final goal and was chosen by the coaches to be an alternate captain at season’s start, has mostly traded petulance for budding leadership.
Lanky and with a long reach, Auch can nonetheless stickhandle in a phone booth, although the junior’s upright drives into traffic would draw hammering hits at a higher level.
“He’s tall, but he handles the puck close to his body very well,” Damren said. “He can stretch out and pull it in and that causes defensemen problems. He had a good night.”
Duany had two assists and Christian and Paddy Mooney each had one assist. Cromwell was credited with 17 saves.
Notes: Berlin defeated visiting Kearsarge-Plymouth, 6-2, to advance to the semifinals… Lebanon’s roster is comprised of 21 players, roughly half a dozen short of what’s needed to field a JV team… Danehy previously lived in the Woodsville, N.H., area and played for the Hanover Wild and Upper Valley Storm youth hockey organizations. He and his family moved into Lebanon’s attendance area in 2019. His mother, Susan Lewis, teaches at Claremont Middle School… West distinguishes himself among his teammates off the ice with cowboy boots as his day-to-day footwear. He’s one of three Stevens students on the team, brothers Hunter and Tyler “Tank” Christian being the other two.
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