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A Hockey Revival in Hartford

After a Few Down Years, Hurricanes Are Back on Track

  • Hartford’s Jeff Lyford, left, and St. Johnsbury’s Andrew Biggie struggle for control of the puck last night in White River Junction. (Valley News - Libby March)

    Hartford’s Jeff Lyford, left, and St. Johnsbury’s Andrew Biggie struggle for control of the puck last night in White River Junction. (Valley News - Libby March) Purchase photo reprints »

  • Hartford players celebrate after scoring a goal against St. Johnsbury. The Hurricanes won, 8-2. (Valley News - Libby March)

    Hartford players celebrate after scoring a goal against St. Johnsbury. The Hurricanes won, 8-2. (Valley News - Libby March) Purchase photo reprints »

  • Hartford’s Riley Horan races down the ice during last night’s win over St. Johnsbury. (Valley News - Libby March)

    Hartford’s Riley Horan races down the ice during last night’s win over St. Johnsbury. (Valley News - Libby March) Purchase photo reprints »

  • Hartford’s Jeff Lyford, left, and St. Johnsbury’s Andrew Biggie struggle for control of the puck last night in White River Junction. (Valley News - Libby March)
  • Hartford players celebrate after scoring a goal against St. Johnsbury. The Hurricanes won, 8-2. (Valley News - Libby March)
  • Hartford’s Riley Horan races down the ice during last night’s win over St. Johnsbury. (Valley News - Libby March)

White River Junction — After a stellar run of success in the late 2000s, the Hartford High boys hockey team had fallen on difficult times by their own standards lately.

After missing the playoffs each of the last two years on their own volition — Hurricanes coach Todd Bebeau won’t apply for the Vermont Division II state tournament unless his team can muster a .400 winning percentage or better — this year’s edition is heading to the postseason and playing some of its best hockey late in the season.

Following last night’s 8-2 thumping of St. Johnsbury at Wendell Barwood Arena, the Canes are 11-7 and in sixth place in the D-II standings. They’ve outscored their last three opponents 21-2 while putting together the program’s first three-game winning streak since the 2008-09, when it captured its fifth state championship and reached the final four for the third straight season. Things changed abruptly after that, with an aggregate 17-40-4 (.293) mark over the next three seasons.

“No one in that locker room has even been on a .500 team, so they’re pretty confident right now, to be having a winning season,” said Bebeau, whose teams were a combined 10-27-3 over the previous two years. “This team has been accomplishing a lot of small goals and taking steps in the right direction, and it’s only the tip of the iceberg with this group. There are a lot of things we still want to accomplish and feel like we can accomplish.”

It’ll be the first playoff trip for Hartford’s corps of 10 juniors, who’ve accounted for 161 of the team’s 177 total goals and assists. Many of them are second- or third-year varsity players who battled through the team’s difficult recent past.

One such player is Brandon Gardner, who had a career-best four goals during last night’s rout of the Hilltoppers. A Fairlee resident and Rivendell Academy junior who plays for the Canes through the Vermont Principals Association’s member-to-member program, Gardner has suited up for Hartford since his freshman year.

“It’s been a challenge, because we all knew the history that this team had and wanted to keep it going,” Gardner said. “But (Bebeau) never let us get too down on ourselves and you can definitely see the maturity this year in how we’ve played. Part of it is just being upperclassmen now and part of is just that we have better chemistry now and better (execution).”

Hartford’s maturity was tested Feb. 11, when it surrendered a 3-1 lead at home against Milton in the final two minutes of regulation and lost to the Yellowjackets in overtime, 4-3.

At 8-7 following the setback, the Canes were in danger of falling back to the .500 mark, but instead responded with renewed vigor.

“It was an excruciating loss, and we talked about it,” Bebeau said. “We just didn’t finish that night. But we came back and had a great week of practice, and we’ve moved on.”

Through two periods against St. Johnsbury (4-14-0), the Hurricanes held a 28-10 lead in shots and a 5-1 advantage on the scoreboard.

The hosts scored twice in the opening period, the first at 4:16 when defenseman Josh Harrington — the team’s lone senior and its assistant captain — fed junior John Borchert with a pinpoint pass from behind the net and Borchert buried it past sophomore Hilltopper goalie Ben Greenstein (27 saves). Gardner got his first goal with 1:16 left in the first when he flattened an opponent on the side boards, then kept up with the puck and scored on the backhand to make it 2-0.

Gardner scored again 3:17 into the second period on a crisp pass from Jeremy McGlone (two assists), then set up his own third goal with more persistence. Initially turned away by Greenstein on a breakaway, Gardner didn’t blink in pursuit of the puck and passed it off the boards to freshman Nathan Lemieux.

The Canes moved the puck swiftly in the offensive zone from there, McGlone eventually getting it back to Gardner for a wrist shot that clinched his third hat trick of the year and made it 4-1.

“(Gardner) played with an edge tonight, not just by scoring the goals but by playing physical and skating through (opponents). When he skates with an edge, he can make a lot of things happen,” Bebeau said.

Before the public address announcer was done reading the scoring details, Hartford struck again with more passing precision. On its next possession, Hartford’s John Borchert and Andrew Atkinson handled the puck to set up Jeff Lyford’s 18th goal of the year. All juniors, the Borchert-Atkinson-Lyford trio have combined for 40 goals and 46 assists, nearly half of Hartford’s total points.

“That line has a lot of speed and moves the puck well,” Bebeau said. “They’re skilled kids and they don’t mind possessing the puck.”

Gardner got his fourth on another pass from Lemieux 43 seconds into the third period and Borchert and Lyford assisted on Atkinson’s sore with 5:04 to play. Nick Terino added a shorthanded goal to make it 8-1 before the Hilltoppers’ Moy Cherem scored on the power play with 2:00 left.

Ice Chips: Junior Mak Lyford made 21 stops for Hartford. ... Lyford has 36 career goals and will likely become the first Hurricane to score 40 since 2009 graduate Cody Vose, who was the last of four 100 career-point scorers to skate for Hartford in the 2000s.

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

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