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Charging Up the Hill: Surging Kimball Union Boys Hockey Team Aiming for the Top

  • KUA coach Mike Levine rallies his players after the first period during the Wildcats’ win over Winchendon yesterday in Meriden. (Valley News - Sarah Priestap)

    KUA coach Mike Levine rallies his players after the first period during the Wildcats’ win over Winchendon yesterday in Meriden. (Valley News - Sarah Priestap) Purchase photo reprints »

  • KUA’s Jonathan Charbonneau (22) fights for the puck against Winchendon yesterday. (Valley News - Sarah Priestap)

    KUA’s Jonathan Charbonneau (22) fights for the puck against Winchendon yesterday. (Valley News - Sarah Priestap) Purchase photo reprints »

  • KUA coach Mike Levine rallies his players after the first period during the Wildcats’ win over Winchendon yesterday in Meriden. (Valley News - Sarah Priestap)
  • KUA’s Jonathan Charbonneau (22) fights for the puck against Winchendon yesterday. (Valley News - Sarah Priestap)

Meriden — To celebrate Kimball Union Academy’s bicentennial, the slogan “200 Years on the Hilltop” has been inscribed around campus, including a large rendition that bedecks center ice at Akerstrom Arena.

Fitting for the Wildcat boys, who’ve spent virtually the entire season on top of the hill in the New England Prep School Ice Hockey Association.

A virtual lock for the Elite Eight tournament — NEPIHA’s tourney inviting the top eight programs in its 62-team conference, regardless of school size — Kimball Union has been ranked No. 1 by both official and unofficial outlets throughout the season.

The Cats, 26-2 after last night’s 5-2 drubbing of visiting Winchendon, will likely return to the Elite Eight after qualifying two years ago and missing out last year.

They were ranked No. 9 overall after winning the 2011-12 Lakes Region League championship and went on to champion an eight-team, small-school tournament as well.

Aspirations are even bigger this year, with 16 seniors on the roster and 12 players committed to college programs, including 10 to Division I schools.

After being ranked No. 1 by Hockey Night in Boston magazine at the start of the season, KUA has embraced its role as favorites — and delivered. The Wildcats’ immense talent and cohesiveness was on full display last night as they jumped out to a 4-0 lead, outshot Winchendon 37-20 and rarely let off the gas in a high-octane attack geared toward scoring early and often.

“When you’re on top, you know you’re going to get your best from (opponents) trying to knock you off,” said senior Alex Carle, an Alaska native bound for Merrimack College. “It’s up to us to match their intensity.”

That wasn’t a problem last night. With blazing speed and aggressive puck movement, KUA made quick work of Winchendon. Norwich University-bound Connor Evangelista tallied four assists, including helpers on both first period goals as KUA ripped off 10 of the game’s first 13 shots.

Three minutes, 8 seconds in, Evangelista’s diagonal pass though the slot was gathered on the right side by Mercyhurst-bound Jonathan Charbonneau, whose wrister beat Winchendon goalie Simon Jasmin (32 saves) to make it 1-0. It was 2-0 just 1:25 late,r when KUA struck on the power play, Evangelista’s blast from the right point tipped in by Bentley-bound Brendan White to make it 2-0.

The foghorn blared in celebration over the public-address system once more as the Wildcats and their senior-night crowd were running circles around another opponent, sometimes literally. Who could catch them?

“That’s a big part of our game, we’ve gotta come out fast and keep moving on our feet,” Carle said. “We’re always reminding each other about that.”

KUA stalled on a late power-play chance in the first period, but came out firing once more in the second, scoring on two of its first three shots to grab go ahead 4-0.

KUA defender Joey Dudek (Boston College) sent a crossing pass from the left point to Carle, whose sweeping one-timer whizzed past Jasmin 1:25 in. Evangelista had set up Dudek for his third assist.

Five minutes later KUA was again rewarded for its relentless pursuit, with Jake Landry in perfect position for a rebound on a wide open left side after Jasmin made an initial chest save on Gregg Burmaster.

Winchendon got on the board less than a minute later on a low-lying rocket from Nick Marin (two goals), and the visitors had a chance to get some real momentum when Kimball Union’s Cam Beecy was sent to the penalty box for a cross check less than a minute after that.

KUA’s penalty kill smothered the man advantage until a pair of weak shots near the end of it, and the Cats made it 5-1 late in the stanza during their own power play. White smashed in a slapper from the right point after another feed from Evangelista.

“Our defenders have really carried the load for us this year,” KUA coach Mike Levine said. “Connor has been a big part of that, and certainly was tonight.”

With its four-goal lead in tow, KUA didn’t let up in the slightest in the third period. Beginning with a rapid Carle-to-Charbonneau offering that pinged off the crossbar, the Cats reeled off seven shots in the first five minutes of the period. Though it wouldn’t score another goal, KUA kept the pressure on throughout most of the final 18 minutes.

“When you’re up by three or four goals, that’s no time to sit back and relax because things can turn around in a hockey game really quickly,” Levine said. “We try to work hard and believe in our system every time we’re out on the ice, every shift that we play.”

Ice Chips: While the NEPSIHA’s official rankings aren’t available to the general public, Levine confirmed the Wildcats were ranked No. 1 heading into last night’s action. KUA was also top-ranked in the latest unofficial rankings released by New England Hockey Journal. ... Winchendon coach Jarrett Sampson, a forward on the Dartmouth College men’s hockey team from 2002-06, said KUA has the most talent of any team he’s faced this year. ... Winchendon’s Marin scored his second goal on a steal in the defensive zone and breakaway with 2:41 to play. ... The Cats were 2-for-5 on the power play, though its last one was only eight seconds long. ... After the game, the parents of KUA’s 16 seniors were introduced along with players in a ceremony recognizing their last regular-season home game. The Cats will host the winner of Friday’s Brewster-Proctor game in the first round of the Lakes Region League Tournament on Saturday.

Jared Pendak can be reached at jpendak@vnews.com or 603-727-3306.