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Eagles are heading back to the Frozen Four

CONWAY — The Kennett High ice hockey team isn't quite ready to end its run as state champs.

The Eagles were the lone road team in divisions I, II and III (a total of 12 games) to win in the quarterfinals Saturday night when they traveled to Conway Arena and knocked off the No. 4 ranked Belmont-Gilford Bulldogs 5-2. With the victory the boys from Conway advance to their seventh consecutive Frozen Four appearance in Concord.

Kennett (11-8), the No. 5 seed, will play top ranked and undefeated Berlin (19-0) in the semifinals at 7:30 p.m. this Wednesday at Everett Arena. Berlin reached the semis by thrashing a physical Portsmouth squad 17-2 at Notre Dame Arena on Saturday night.

Coach Michael Lane was proud of the effort from his troops who had split the first two meetings with Belmont-Gilford (12-7) with each team winning at home in the opening two contests.

"One hundred percent of the credit goes to the kids," Lane, who has now guided KHS to the Frozen Four in all six of his seasons at the helm, said. "They came out and executed the game-plan we wanted perfectly in a hostile environment. ...I think experience in playoff hockey is something that can never be overlooked. Saturday night we called on our past experiences and it paid off."

Lane said the game-plan called for his troops to get off to a fast start and force the Bulldogs to play from behind.

"The important thing was getting that early lead and then we got the second goal five minutes later," he said. "When we got that goal, I think Belmont-Gilford started to press a little bit and that took them out of their rhythm."

The Eagles came out flying and got on the board first just 1:49 into the first period when senior captain Connor Todd, who finished second in the regular season in points in Division III, found freshman Nick Ansaldi on the backdoor for a tap in goal.

Kennett doubled its advantage less than five minutes later at 6:01 of the first, with a key goal. Senior assistant captain Nick Massa, who Lane credited with playing his best game of the season, slid a puck back to freshman defenseman Bryan Baker. Baker snapped a shot towards the net that was deflected home by senior captain Anthony LaRusso.

Kennett went to the locker room in front 2-0 after the opening 15 minutes, but the host Bulldogs had a feeling early it wasn't going to their night as they ran head-on into a red hot KHS goalie. Sophomore Josh Kondrat made a series of four saves midway through the period that kept the hosts off the scoreboard and left their fans shaking their heads. Kondrat went on to make 42 saves in the win and earned the praise of his coach.

"Josh was dynamite," Lane said. "He was on all night. ...Really, the whole team played very well. Everyone contributed — just because someone's name didn't appear in the scorebook, doesn't mean they didn't contribute. This might have been our best total team effort of the season."

The Eagles upped the lead to 3-0 just 2:32 into the second period when Todd found Ansaldi again for a breakaway and the high-scoring Ansaldi, who set the Kennett freshman point record last week, snapped a shot blocker side for the goal.

With 1:52 to play in the second frame, Kennett got a power-play goal from Baker and he ripped a slap-shot home from the slot.

"Up 4-0, we felt pretty good," Lane said. "Everyone played well. Defensively, Dane Rivera, Bryan Baker, Robert Moody and Dan Nusbaum all did an excellent job. Our forwards played great, too. I think we won every lose puck battle — that's what playoff hockey is all about."

The hosts finally found the back of the net in the third period, but it wasn't until they pulled their goalie for an extra skater in the final minutes. The Bull Dogs made it 4-1 with 3:17 to play. They were able to cut the deficit to two, 4-2, with 1:43 remaining, but Kennett never got rattled.

LaRusso put the icing on the victory cake when he tallied an empty net goal for a 5-2 final in the waning seconds.

The win was the first opening round road playoff victory for the Eagles who were previously 0-2.

"I am really proud of this group," said Lane. "The kids worked hard all week to prepare for (Saturday) and they stepped up their game."

The win means a third meeting with Berlin (19-0) on Wednesday, who beat Portsmouth (6-13) 17-2 Saturday. Berlin beat Kennett in both meetings during the regular season.

The Mountaineers won the first meeting of the season between these two teams in December, winning 4-0 at Notre Dame Arena. It marked the first time in 105 games, dating back to 2007 that the Eagles had been shutout. The Mountaineers outshot the boys from Conway 49-13 on that night with sophomore John Kondrat turning in a stellar performance in net for the Eagles.

In the rematch, two weeks ago, at Ham Ice Arena in Conway, Berlin nipped the Eagles 4-3 in a thriller.

"I think we're building on a great local rivalry," Lane said. "We have the utmost respect for the Berlin players and coaching staff. We know we have a huge task ahead of us, but you get in (Everett Arena) this time of year, anything can happen.

"... I really can't say enough about how our team leaders have really stepped up," he continued. "Connor, Nick and Anthony have done whatever we've needed them to do. Saturday was difficult and this Wednesday will be even more difficult, but we're certainly not satisfied, we want a chance to win."

In the other semifinal, No. 2 John Stark (17-1-1) will play No. 3 Souhegan (14-5) in the opener at 5:30 p.m. at Everett Arena.

The Division III finals are this Saturday at 12:15 p.m. at the Verizon Wireless Arena in Manchester.

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