Hartford boys hockey is battle-tested heading into postseason

Hartford’s Cavan Benjamin (4) fights to regain control of the puck from Champlain Valley’s Alex Zuchowski (8) as he attempts to clear it from the goal during a game at Wendell A. Barwood Arena in White River Junction, Vt., on Wednesday, Feb. 21, 2024. Hartford won, 6-2. (Valley News / Report For America - Alex Driehaus) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

Hartford’s Cavan Benjamin (4) fights to regain control of the puck from Champlain Valley’s Alex Zuchowski (8) as he attempts to clear it from the goal during a game at Wendell A. Barwood Arena in White River Junction, Vt., on Wednesday, Feb. 21, 2024. Hartford won, 6-2. (Valley News / Report For America - Alex Driehaus) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com. valley news / report for america photographs — Alex Driehaus

Hartford’s Logan Caffrey (14) pushes Champlain Valley’s Jackson White (6) against the glass while they fight for the puck during a game at Wendell A. Barwood Arena in White River Junction, Vt., on Wednesday, Feb. 21, 2024. (Valley News / Report For America - Alex Driehaus) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

Hartford’s Logan Caffrey (14) pushes Champlain Valley’s Jackson White (6) against the glass while they fight for the puck during a game at Wendell A. Barwood Arena in White River Junction, Vt., on Wednesday, Feb. 21, 2024. (Valley News / Report For America - Alex Driehaus) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com. Alex Driehaus

Hartford teammates celebrate after scoring a goal during a game against Champlain Valley Union High School at Wendell A. Barwood Arena in White River Junction, Vt., on Wednesday, Feb. 21, 2024. (Valley News / Report For America - Alex Driehaus) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

Hartford teammates celebrate after scoring a goal during a game against Champlain Valley Union High School at Wendell A. Barwood Arena in White River Junction, Vt., on Wednesday, Feb. 21, 2024. (Valley News / Report For America - Alex Driehaus) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com. Alex Driehaus

Hartford head coach Todd Bebeau jokes with Matt Hayes (18), giving him a hard time for accidentally hitting the puck over his team’s bench twice during a game against Champlain Valley Union High School at Wendell A. Barwood Arena in White River Junction, Vt., on Wednesday, Feb. 21, 2024. (Valley News / Report For America - Alex Driehaus) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

Hartford head coach Todd Bebeau jokes with Matt Hayes (18), giving him a hard time for accidentally hitting the puck over his team’s bench twice during a game against Champlain Valley Union High School at Wendell A. Barwood Arena in White River Junction, Vt., on Wednesday, Feb. 21, 2024. (Valley News / Report For America - Alex Driehaus) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com. valley news / report for america — Alex Driehaus

By TRIS WYKES

Valley News Staff Writer

Published: 02-22-2024 2:57 PM

Modified: 02-22-2024 9:31 PM


WHITE RIVER JUNCTION — The gamble has worked thus far. Is there a bigger payout to come for the Hartford High boys hockey team?

“This program has never played a tougher schedule,” 26th-year Hurricanes coach Todd Bebeau said flatly after Wednesday’s 6-2 defeat of VPA Division I member Champlain Valley Union at Barwood Arena in the teams’ regular-season finale.

“Everything went our way at the beginning of the season when we started 8-0-2, but every game in the second half could have been a victory or a defeat.”

Seven losses and a tie followed, five of those setbacks by a single goal. Wednesday’s result was only the second victory in that stretch, but Bebeau doesn’t regret scheduling as he did. Division II Hartford (10-7-3) hosts Woodstock (8-9-3) on Wednesday in the neighbors’ playoff opener.

The Hurricanes are third-seeded while the Wasps, who lost to their rivals, 7-1, in the season opener, are sixth. The victor visits second-seeded Lyndon (15-2-3) on a date to be determined.

“What we’ve learned when you play those top teams is that if you don’t pick someone up on the backcheck or turn the puck over on the wall in your end, they’re going to make you pay,” said Bebeau, crediting his troops for responding positively to frequent video critiques. “That high level of competition has gotten us ready for the tournament.”

Hartford was seemingly cruising to the division title two years ago before a third-period collapse kept the championship plaque from its grasp. Last season’s team was strong but encountered a buzzsaw in eventual champion and senior-loaded U-32 in the semifinals. Now comes a less-touted group of Hurricanes who might be the most cohesive and strongest group of them all.

“Our transition game was good tonight, and we didn’t fumble and bumble pucks as much as we had been doing,” Bebeau said.

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He deferred to 11th-year assistant coach Erin Stevens, who works with Hartford’s defensemen, to describe how the rearguards’ agility and rapid puck movement get the hosts out of their end with alacrity.

“We work on that a lot in practice, especially now that we’re down to three defensemen,” Stevens said. “They understand when to hold the puck or call for a reverse. Their chemistry is incredible.”

Junior Nolan Morlock is out for the season after suffering a broken collarbone on Feb. 10 at Essex. Bebeau said the forward required surgery to insert eight screws and a plate, and Stevens said the hit Morlock absorbed made her grateful that was the extent of the damage. Rangy junior Cavan Benjamin was moved to forward in response, and “he’s wreaking havoc,” Bebeau said.

The coach said he only recently went to a blueline trio, not wanting to burn out seniors Lochlan Park and Matt Hayes and junior Tighe Hrabchak.

Overall, Bebeau noted, his team’s genuine enjoyment of playing together and its realization that the season could soon end has kept energy levels high.

“There’s been healthy frustration with some of our losses, but the guys come to the rink to work,” the coach said. “I’ll come in all cranky, but they authentically love to practice, and that’s what makes them special.”

Benjamin opened Wednesday’s scoring during the fourth minute by tipping in a Park shot from the point. Ezra Mock centered to Nick Daniels for a one-time shot off the rush two minutes later for a 2-0 lead. The visitors scored on a shorthanded breakaway to halve their deficit.

Mock pushed his team up, 3-1, with a toe-drag-and-shoot move that zipped under the crossbar three minutes into the second period and on a power play. Park scored in the same location shortly thereafter, and Benjamin stuffed one home at the right post for a 5-1 lead heading into the second intermission.

The Red Hawks (5-12-3) changed goaltenders for the final period, but Mock beat the newcomer with a shot from the right boards 17 seconds in. CVU closed the scoring with four minutes to play.

Hartford seems to have as good a chance as anyone for the state title if it can get strong goaltending from Nunu Mayer down the stretch. The freshman made nine saves Wednesday.

“We had a lot of talent the last two years, but sometimes winning hockey games goes beyond talent,” Bebeau said. “You have to have the right mindset.

“Wait until you see what these kids can do. They’ve been in the shadows the last two years.”

Notes: Hurricanes reserve goaltender Frankie Cushing recently underwent season-ending hip surgery but is expected back next winter. … A loud cheer went up from the home bench when freshman Jacob Duke, wearing No. 8, took his first shift of the season. … Word around Barwood is that the Hurricanes have low numbers in the pipeline for coming seasons. … CVU was 6-11-2 last season and 6-13-2 the season before that.

Tris Wykes can be reached at twykes@vnews.com.