By Tris Wykes

LACONIA, N.H. – The Lebanon-Stevens-Mount Royal boys hockey team lost, 3-2, to Belmont-Gilford in overtime during an NHIAA Division III contest Thursday. 

A critical take: the Raiders, just down from Division II, allowed the 0-3 Bulldogs to rally from a two-goal deficit after a period, surrendering the winning tally when goaltender Toby Cromwell couldn’t stop a shot from the right circle three minutes into the extra session. The visitors’ team defense was atrocious.

Belmont-Gilford’s Zack Gilbert is pursued by Lebanon-Stevens-Mount Royal’s Jake Kriplin and Andrew Duany (12).

A benevolent assessment: Lebanon competed for the first time in 11 months while Belmont-Gilford played its fourth game of the season. The third period was a wash, and Eric Ellington unloaded a brilliant, one-time bomb from the right circle and inside the far, upper corner to end the game. The visitors’ team defense left something to be desired.

Jim Damren, LSMR’s fourth-year coach, took the latter view, as befits a boss whose squad had only practiced for the previous two months.

“It’s disappointing that we lost, but first games are always tough,” said Damren, whose team went without its usual one or two preseason scrimmages. “But honestly, first game, first trip, first time dealing with Covid-19 protocols on an away rink? I think there are a lot of positives we can take away from it, even though we let them back in the game.”

Will McGee opened the scoring after 1 minute, 13 seconds, receiving an Adian Yates pass and firing from the left side of the slot. The visitors doubled their advantage six minutes later when Andrew Duany scored from almost the same spot with an assist awarded to Griffin Auch. LSMR took 14 of the first period’s 18 shots.

Because of Covid concerns, Belmont-Gilford took over the front row of the bleachers at Merrill Fay Arena during the intermissions. The Raiders, who dressed in two locker rooms and aren’t supposed to crowd into one of them between periods, remained on their bench, players all but sitting in each others’ laps for the 12 minute-break. By the time skates hit the ice again, something had changed.

The Bulldogs’ Adam Ribeiro began the comeback, scoring 1:36 into the second stanza and with Duany in the penalty box. Damren said he’s discussed staying out of the sin bin with his senior captain, a standout player and perennial bearer of good cheer who nonetheless committed major and minor fouls at crucial times last season.

“We’ve had lots of conversations about it, this year and last year,” Damren said. “It’s not like referees have his number; he’s just a big strong kid. All penalties have the potential to hurt us and you’ve got to be smart.”

Lebanon-Stevens-Mount Royal’s Liam Ouelette and Belmont-Gilford’s Bradley McIntire have eyes only for vulcanized rubber.

Belmont-Gilford’s Owen Guerin forged a tie four minutes before the second intermission. The Bulldogs nearly took the lead on the next shift, Cromwell denying a breakaway after a Raiders defenseman fell down at the offensive blue line and gifted the hosts the puck. 

LSMR’s defense is without 2020 graduates Will Forman and Tristan Ouelette. Neither was a world-beater, but each was on the high side of average and their absence has left the rear guard with only two experienced players – senior Jake Kriplin and junior Luke Greene. First-year regulars and sophomores Andrew Danehy and Ryan West had expected struggles Thursday and junior Liam Ouelette, who saw limited time, hasn’t played defense in roughly five years.

“You’re not playing against your guys anymore,” Damren said. “It doesn’t matter if you give up a goal in practice, but if you misplay the puck in a game and give up a goal, it counts. “

Damren said he likes his team’s talent and believes it will be vastly improved by month’s end. That said, he cited a few areas in which the Raiders need immediate improvement.

LSMR was at least equal and perhaps superior to Belmont-Gilford in size, but got pushed around and run over more than a casual observer would expect. The visitors were too light on their sticks, allowing the Bulldogs to lift and knock them aside and whisk the puck away. The Raiders also over-extended their shifts, leading to fatigue and uninspired backchecking.

“Either skate harder or get off the ice!” bellowed assistant coach Brad Whitaker midway through the game.

“We didn’t always have the sense of urgency on pucks that I would like,” Damren said, citing the game’s final play, when Belmont-Gilford was able to make an easy pass out of the right corner, as a prime example. “As coaches, we always look in games for things we need to work on in practice. Now, we have a much better handle on that.”

Belmont-Gilford’s Owen Guerin and Lebanon-Stevens-Mount Royal’s Jake Kriplin watch the flying puck.

Also expect some sermons reinforcing hockey’s standing as a team game. LSMR has a few players gifted at stickhandling but with the tendency to let it get out of hand. At one point, a Raider made three defenders miss and attempted to leap around a fourth before committing a turnover.

“We’re overhanding the puck a bit,” Damren said. “Hockey isn’t about skating through a crowd even if you have the opportunity to. You have to move the puck, because there’s six guys on the ice. If somebody double-teams you, that means someone’s open.”

Would you like to know Lebanon’s schedule for the immediate future? So would the Raiders. They’re slated to host Berlin on Monday and Keene on Wednesday but the Hanover Improvement Society has yet to declare whether it will allow out-of-area teams to visit Campion Arena in February.

“Everything’s a moving target this season,” Damren said. “If somebody called the day of a game and said it’s off, I wouldn’t be shocked. I just hope our guys wear their masks and do what they can to keep our season going.”

Notes: Merrill Fay Arena is home to the Laconia Wolves junior hockey organization and one of its coaches buttonholed LSMR’s Griffin Auch as he exited the locker room… The Raiders rode to the game in what appeared to be a cross between a school bus and a United Parcel Service vehicle. Think school bus shape but UPS coloring… The game sheet copy Damren received after the contest was all but blank. Whomever tended it during the contest didn’t press hard enough for anything more than a few dots to go through to the carbon copy… The Bulldogs include female forward Geena Cookingham, who skated a regular shift.. Each Bulldog was allowed to have two fans in attendance. No visiting spectators were permitted.

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