One’s Good, Two’s Better: KUA Repeats on Ice (Videos)

Valley News Staff Writer
Monday, March 05, 2018

Manchester — Andranik Armstrong held his head in his hands, finding it difficult to fight back tears. Joining the Kimball Union Academy boys hockey team, he said to those around him, was the best decision he had ever made. 

Armstrong scored twice for the No. 3 seeded Wildcats, who netted a goal in each period in a 3-2 victory over No. 1 Salisbury (Conn.) School in the New England Preparatory School Athletic Council’s Elite Eight championship game at Saint Anselm College’s Thomas F. Sullivan Arena on Sunday. The championship win was KUA’s second in as many seasons after it broke a 35-year title drought last year.

“It means a lot,” said Armstrong, an Alexandria, Va., native. “It’s been such a huge part of my life. Going to Kimball Union, just to get back (into the championship) and make it a better place, it feels great.”

KUA senior goaltender Sean Dynan made 28 saves for the victory, including several sprawling stops leading by one in the final two minutes with Salisbury’s goaltender pulled. The Wildcats finished the year 30-5-2 overall. 

“It hasn’t really set in yet,” said Dynan, a Reading, Mass., native. “Two years in a row, it’s a lucky opportunity to play for a team as good as this under Coach (Tim) Whitehead. I just feel lucky. I feel blessed.”

Added junior Seth Stadheim, a former Hanover High athlete who transferred to KUA two years ago: “Every game’s a grind. To accomplish this twice is amazing. All the guys really care about each other. It’s just great to be a part of.”

Salisbury senior Alex DiPaolo opened the scoring with 4 minutes, 23 seconds left in the first period, finishing off a behind-the-back pass from Arsenii Smekhov in front of Dynan’s net.

The Wildcats responded 24 seconds later. KUA senior defenseman Bryce Dolan drove into the right circle and fired a sharp-angle shot toward the crease, which deflected off the stick of junior forward Drew Bennett and over Crimson Knight goaltender Bryan McGrath’s left shoulder. The teams stayed tied to the intermission, with KUA holding a sizable shot advantage. 

Salisbury poured on the pressure in the second stanza, pinning KUA deep in its defensive zone for long stretches. But Salisbury had trouble fooling Dynan and the Wildcats’ defensemen, failing to score on its one and only power play of the game. 

KUA took the lead with 5:50 left to go in the second on Armstrong’s first goal of the night. Dolan, a Barrington, R.I. native, sent a seemingly routine shot from the right point toward McGrath’s net that deflected off of Armstrong’s stick and in.

Armstrong added to KUA’s lead with a strong move to the net in the game’s final stanza, cleaning up a loose puck behind McGrath off of a shot from Dolan and a redirection from KUA senior Logan Cash. 

“We knew they were going to throw the kitchen sink at us,” Whitehead said. “When we got the third goal to get a little separation, that was big.” 

Dynan held strong until late in the third period, tracking the puck on three scrambles in front of his net. DiPaolo pulled Salisbury to within one goal with three minutes remaining.

Salisbury had two more scoring chances in the game’s final moments with McGrath pulled for the extra attacker. Dynan saved one and the other hit the outside of the net to give KUA the victory.

“Honestly, I think we had the same mindset (as last year going into the NEPSAC championship),” said Dynan. “The key guys this year, they knew how to play in those situations. We were in it last year, so we were able to keep calm when things turned to the worse. I think mental strength this year really helped us out.”

KUA’s only other meeting with Salisbury was a 2-2 tie on Dec. 15, a game the Knights tied while skating 6-on-4 in the final few minutes of the third period with the goalie pulled. Being in a similar situation gave some wearing KUA orange and white deja vu.

“We had a few chances earlier on, and we all thought that was going to bite us at the end,” Stadheim said. “We have great defense. They bailed us out.”

Whitehead added: “We had to keep alert and keep our head on a swivel and not panic. Obviously, it’s tough in that situation. But my guys gutted it out and got the win.”

Dynan said he plans on pursuing opportunities in junior hockey next winter. Armstrong’s future isn’t so clear, as the Wildcats senior scorer admitted on the ice.

“He’s unbelievable,” Whitehead said of Armstrong. “He has to be the best uncommitted player in the country. Now, with so many early commitments, guys don’t have opportunities. But I’ve been so impressed with that kid offensively and defensively. And as a leader? He’s unbelievable with our younger guys, because he worked his way up for three years.”

One thing’s for sure: Armstrong and his graduating classmates have left KUA’s boys hockey program in a better place than they found it.

That leaves returning players like Stadheim to pick up next season where they’ve left off.

“We’re losing a ton of guys,” he said. “But we lost a ton of guys last year, and look what happened this year. We’ve just got to come together next year and, hopefully, we can win another one.”

Josh Weinreb can be reached at jweinreb@vnews.com or 603-727-3306.