ASHBURNHAM, Mass. -- The long-awaited battle between two of the premier prep school hockey programs in New England methodically transformed into a self-educating lesson about opportunity.
Salisbury School, the No. 2 rated prep school program, according to New England Hockey Journal, took advantage of the opportunities handed to them while fourth-ranked Cushing Academy failed to convert on its many bids. The end result would see the Crimson Knights scoring four times on the power play to prevail 4-3 Sunday night inside Theodore Iorio Arena.
"Scoring those power play goals is great," said sixth-year Salisbury head coach Andrew Will. "You want to make teams pay when they have a guy in the box. That was certainly a huge difference in this game. At the same time we take pride in our penalty kill by doing the little things like blocking shots and getting pucks away from our defensive zone. I thought our guys did a nice job creating that tonight."
In a physically-inclined contest halted repeatedly by an ongoing number of infractions, Salisbury displayed a solid, crisp passing style on the man-advantage before transcending into scoring mode.
Junior forward Vimal Sukumaran redirected two shots into the back of the net while Mitchell Smith and Derek Barach contributed one goal apiece as the Crimson Knights improved to 15-1-4. They are 6-0-1 in their last seven contests.
With the victory, Salisbury puts itself in prime position to contend for a second consecutive Elite 8 crown, which begins later this month and will conclude March 2 tentatively scheduled for Yale University's Ingalls Rink. Last season, Salisbury defeated Kent School for the title, its third overall.
"With our success, everything starts with our leadership," said Will. "Much of that has to do with our captains and our seniors who want to come to rink each day to try and get better. Getting to the Elite 8 is our dream goal but not our daily goal. Our daily goal is coming to work every day and continuing to get better and do all the little things that we need to in order to be successful. For us it is looking at the process instead of the end result."
This rough-and-tumble contest wouldn't be decided until the final period. With both teams deadlocked 2-2 after 36 minutes, Salisbury struck for the go-ahead goal at 4:46 of the closing frame. After failing to score on a 5-on-3 advantage, the Crimson Knights still had a one-man advantage for another minute. Sukumaran, standing just to the left of Penguins goaltender Joey Daccord, fed a quick pass to Smith in front of the crease. The senior got enough of his stick on it, pushing it past Daccord to give Salisbury a 3-2 lead.
Later in the period, Cushing's Jake Simons received a roughing call. With the man-advantage back in its lap, Salisbury capitalized as Barach (team-high 14 goals) raced down along right boards before slipping a shot between Daccord's pads, putting the Crimson Knight's ahead by a pair.
In all, a total of 14 penalties were called -- eight going against Salisbury.
The Penguins (20-7-0) failed to score when having the man-advantage. They then proceeded to watch in vein as the Crimson Knights showed them how it is done.
On Saturday night, versus Canterbury School, Cushing surrendered four power play tallies in a 4-3 defeat. It is a trend seven-year head coach Rob Gagnon says needs to change quickly.
"That's two nights in a row now that all the goals we've allowed were on the power play," said Gagnon. "Kids sometimes get caught up in the heat of the moment which is understandable. But we haven't faced this issue all year until this weekend. Usually our penalty kill is very good but we haven't had the issue of playing undisciplined like we have. This weekend we experienced those issues and it caught up to us and bit us in the butt. We need to be more-disciplined."
Senior forward Tommy DeFelice put the Penguins on the board first. Off the face off inside the right circle, DeFelice took control of the puck and send a laser past Mitchell Datz just 5:32 in. Moments later, Cushing had a golden opportunity to add to its lead after being given a 5-on-3 chance.
But to Salisbury's credit, there was no panic and the special teams performed admirably by shutting Cushing down. That, in turn, would lead to the Crimson Knights tying up this tilt. A shot from the outside by Smith deflected off of Sukumaran's stick in front and past Daccord coming at 9:45.
Daccord, a junior, was busy all evening, finishing with 35 saves.
The score stayed that way until Cushing sophomore Bailey Conger broke in on Datz (26 saves) and beat the senior with a backhand stick side at 3:01 of the second period and give the lead back to the Penguins at 2-1. But Cushing's inability to stay out of the penalty box would prove to be their downfall. Just four minutes following Conger's marker, Sukumaran once again perched in front of the crease. Salisbury's power play unit worked the puck vicariously between the circles before Will Toffey let go of a shot just inside the blue line. Sukumaran was able to tip it into the back of the net at 7:58 and send the Crimson Knights into the second intermission all even again.
Once Salisbury had taken control of the final frame with its two scores, Cushing, the defending Martin/Earl Tournament title holders, did not go down without a fight. With Daccord pulled for the extra man, Simons tallied a top-shelf goal with 47 seconds remaining.
"During the whole year our power play has been big for us," senior forward Evan Smith said. "Every practice we work a lot on special teams. We knew coming in that Cushing was going to hit us and hack at us and we knew they tend to get a bunch of penalties. The key to this game was for us to take it, let them get called for penalties and it ended worked out in our favor because we got a bunch of power play goals tonight."