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The Branford boys' ice hockey team recently took a big blow when junior center Tyler Criscuolo suffered a hand injury against Amity on Feb. 8. Criscuolo is one of the Hornets' leading scorers with 15 goals and seven assists, yet is out indefinitely and so Adolph Brink's squad must go to battle without the assistant captain for the time being.
Branford's first two tests came with games against Brookfield-Bethel-Danbury and then Watertown-Pomperaug last week and the Hornets passed both with flying colors, earning a pair of one-sided victories to improve to 12-2-1 overall and 7-1-1 in SCC-SWC Division II. Branford first gained a 7-4 home win against Brookfield-Bethel-Danbury at Northford Ice Pavilion on Feb. 12, followed by a 7-1 triumph versus Watertown-Pomperaug up at Taft two days later. Tyler Hackett-also a junior center and assistant captain-netted a hat trick in each game and additionally dished out three assists in the latter victory to bring his team-leading scoring total to 20 goals and 20 assists.
"Everyone has been picking it up since Tyler's been out. He's a big help to the team and everyone's playing a little harder up front," said Hackett. "We're working hard and playing together as a team. The defense has been clamping down by clogging up the middle and getting the puck out of the zone and our goalie has been playing good."
The Hornets' starting goalie is junior assistant captain AJ Brink, who sports a 2.15 goals against average with a 93.2 save percentage. Brink started against Brookfield-Bethel-Danbury and made eight saves before exiting with Branford up 3-0 after the first period. Senior Ryan Kallert then stopped eight shots through the final two frames.
Hackett scored Branford's first goal just 3:32 into the contest, followed by a tally from junior center and assistant captain Tony Pascale at 6:39, and then senior forward Jason Vitale's goal from Pascale just 20 seconds later. Hackett scored early in the second period, although Brookfield-Bethel-Danbury netted the next two goals to cut the Hornets' lead to 4-2 entering the third. However, Brink's club was clearly not in the mood for a nail-biter as Branford scored two quick ones in the closing stanza for a 6-2 command, the first by junior defenseman Aidan Deane from Pascale, and the second by Hackett from freshman forward Zach Withington. Vitale later scored from Hackett to put a bow on the 7-4 win.
"You always want to get a win against a conference opponent and we carried play for most of the game. We got out to a good lead, kept the ball rolling, and got all of our kids some ice time, which was nice," said Coach Brink, who's in his fifth season as head coach and is assisted by Mark Cunningham and Jim DiNapoli. "This was our first game without Tyler Criscuolo and the kids adapted well to the changes as we had to jostle around the lineup a bit. We have to approach games a little differently now. We've been a run-and-gun team, but now we really have to stress team defense."
The Hornets demonstrated their defensive prowess in its conference win at Watertown-Pomperaug on Feb. 14 by allowing just one goal in cruising to victory. Coach Brink said his team played "much tighter defensively" than in the previous game, specifically in terms of clearing pucks in front of their net to eliminate second chances.
Of course, Branford's offense still executed like a well-oiled machine as Hackett scored from Cooper Bunton, junior defenseman Patrick Cunningham scored from Deane and Hackett, and then sophomore forward Nick Johnson lit the lamp on assists from Bunton and Hackett for a 3-0 lead after one. Hackett scored from freshman forward Scott Klouda, after which Pascale notched a goal from Hackett and senior forward Tyler Martin for a 5-1 lead through two. In the third, Hackett got his second hat trick of the week on Johnson's assist and then Vitale scored the seventh and final goal. Brink made 25 saves in net.
Coach Brink wasn't the only one happy with the Hornets' defensive effort versus Watertown-Pomperaug. Senior captain Rob Denhardt-who anchors Branford's defense with Deane, Cunningham, and junior Jack Murray-also felt the team turned up the defensive pressure and knows that effectiveness on that end of the ice will be key in the Hornets' quest to bring conference and state titles to Branford.
"There's no doubt we have a lot of scorers on our team who use their speed to move the puck well and find the back of the net, but we felt we needed to improve our game defensively last night and we did that by not allowing them to get in our zone as much as the game before. We did a much better of keeping them away from our blue line," said Denhardt, who praised his team's positive attitude and camaraderie. "We obviously want to go all the way this year. There's no question about that. The team is molding together well and we're going to keep playing hard against every team we face to get as many wins as possible."