The first stop for the Staples/Weston/Shelton hockey team on its road to Yale's Ingalls Rink wasn't without rough patches and tough spells.
But the Wreckers, whose top line of Jack Mendillo, Ryan Johnson and Derek Nussbaum has demolished opposing defenses for most of the season, used its electrifying skill on Monday night to top a game opponent in the first round of the Division III tournament.
Mendillo and Johnson each scored two goals and Eric Zurmuehle had a six-point (one goal, five assists) night as No. 8 Staples/Weston/Shelton advanced to the Division III quarterfinals at the expense of No. 9 Lyman Hall/Haddam Killingworth 6-2 at the Milford Ice Pavilion.
The Wreckers will face No. 1 Masuk in the final eight on Thursday at a time and site to be determined for a spot in the semifinals, which will be played at Ingalls.
"It's pretty exciting," Mendillo said. "It's something we've been working on for a while with the new coach and the new attitude on the team," referring to first-year coach Todd Sharinn and his staff after Staples failed to make the tournament a year ago. "We're glad to be here."
The pivotal moment came with 5:08 left in the second period. With the Trojans trailing by a goal and seriously threating the Wreckers cage, Johnson scored his first goal at the other end. Zurmuehle's shot was saved by Lyman Hall goalie Zach O'Toole (23 saves), but Johnson crashed the net to convert the rebound and completely change the momentum.
"(That goal) was huge," Sharinn said. "(Lyman Hall) came out in the second period and wanted it more than we did at that point. I think our guys got a little complacent. They joke that they don't move until I scream at them. I was quiet in the first period, and needless to say I was more boisterous after the second and they showed it when they came out in the third."
The Wreckers scored twice in a 1:28 span early in the third period to put the game on ice. Mendillo flipped a shot past O'Toole before Johnson scored from the slot to give Staples a 5-1 lead with 11:18 left.
"(Johnson) is the little train that could," Sharinn said. "If you add six inches and 40 pounds on Ryan, he is a legitimate Division I prospect and going to play Junior A hockey two years from now."
Although CJ Tangredi scored soon after to give LHK a glimmer of hope, Staples spend the rest of the third period choking out every Trojans attack. The Wreckers controlled the neutral zone for long stretches and goalie Will Englehart (29 saves) came up big whenever he was called upon.
"We changed our forechecking schemes a couple of different ways," Sharinn said. "When I called the timeout (with the score 5-1), I told them at this point it was their game to lose. It was just playing smart."
Nussbaum added an empty net goal with 2:27 left.
Staples hasn't played in front of large crowds this season, but that was certainly the case Monday. The student section gave the Wreckers a lift befitting the playoff setting.
"Playing in front of that crowd was one of the top five wildest things I've ever done in my life," Mendillo said. "I play football so I'm used to big crowds, but here they are right on top of you. You can hear everything they say. It's a whole new level; it gets the adrenaline pumping."
The Wreckers will likely need an even stronger effort to get past the 17-4 Panthers in the next round.
"They are the top-ranked team in Division III," Sharinn said. "If we play like we did against Greenwich, Wilton and St. Joseph, I think we are going to do just fine."