NORTH BRANFORD — Westhill/Stamford’s Nick Ulbrich had Jack Manware lined up. The Branford senior had circled in the neutral zone, and Ulbrich had a bead on him in the third period.
And as Ulbrich arrived, Manware followed through and turned the tables, knocking the Westhill/Stamford forward to the ice.
It was that kind of night at Northford Ice Pavilion as No. 10 Branford beat the short-handed visitors 4-1, answering an early Westhill/Stamford power-play goal with a punishing long shift that tied the game before the first period was out.
“We play physical. They play physical. We just matched it,” said Manware, whose Hornets, the defending Division II boys hockey champions, are 11-1-1.
“They’re a good team,” he added. “They’re missing a bunch of guys, so, we might see them again.”
It looked like a matchup of two top teams in Division II, and it mostly lived up to it, a couple of speedy teams playing hard.
But the visitors (7-3-1) were without two top forwards in particular. Junior Gavin Dolan was out with a stomach flu, co-coach John Santagata said, and Eddie Zelikman broke his hand in Westhill/Stamford’s eye-opening overtime loss to Darien a week ago.
Zelikman, though, could be back as early as next Wednesday.
“He’s going to play with a cast,” Santagata said. “Doctor said he’s good to go.”
They were missed Wednesday, though.
“Take nothing away from (Branford). They’re a good team,” Santagata said. “We got outworked tonight. Losing those two guys makes a big difference for us.”
Tyler Tuccinardi put Westhill/Stamford up just past the midpoint of the first period, a power-play goal through a screen.
Most of the next five minutes was spent in the other end of the ice, though. Branford kept holding the puck in the zone and firing shots either on goalie Eric Osterhus or wide. Zach Jones finally pounced on a rebound to tie it.
“We like to play physical. We like to play with speed as well,” Branford coach Jim DiNapoli said. “I think more than anything, as a group, we like to compete. (The Hornets) are a very competitive group. They don’t like to lose. They went out against a very good hockey club and competed.”
Jared Yakimoff was credited with 30 saves, making a few big ones to keep the Hornets ahead in the second and third periods.
Matt Morgan and Spencer Engstrom scored goals 23 seconds apart in the second period to give the Hornets a two-goal lead. Manware finished off a beautiful passing play on Branford’s only power play in the third period to finish it off.
The Hornets, meanwhile, took six penalties, including three in the last five minutes.
Westhill/Stamford visited No. 1 Darien last week, had No. 10 Branford on Wednesday and hosts No. 7 Greenwich on Friday at Terry Conners Rink.
“We’ll keep moving forward,” Santagata said. “We have Greenwich on Friday night, so we have to bounce right back and keep going. Hopefully we get Dolan back, and a few days more for the other guy. Just learn from this and keep going.”
“The game was real physical. We played hard. They played hard. There was a lot of speed. I thought we played with some good energy. ... The first goal, we had three shifts where we were buzzing.” —Branford coach Jim DiNapoli