Pucks clanging off posts, a late-game go-ahead goal by the opposition, and a potential tying goal waved off in the waning seconds ... it couldn't have been much closer (or perhaps more frustrating) for the Staples-Weston-Shelton boys hockey team on Saturday. Staples played hard but lost a 4-3 heart-breaker to rival St. Joseph of Trumbull at The Rinks At Shelton.

Still, they skated away with plenty of confidence as the team continues its turnaround season.

"It was a tough loss to swallow," said Wreckers senior alternate captain goaltender Luke Andriuk, adding that the team had nothing to hang its head about following a mostly-strong performance. "I think we played almost a solid 45 minutes of hockey."

Staples Coach Ralph Unker said a couple of breakdowns on defense led to a pair of St. Joseph goals as the Wreckers couldn't hang on after building a 3-1 lead. The Westport-led team dropped its second straight game following six wins to begin the season but still remains in good position to clinch a state playoff berth after missing out a year ago. St. Joseph improved to 5-2.

Although Staples is a Division III team and St. Joseph is currently a D-I program, the teams have had a fierce rivalry in recent years. They are both FCIAC teams and met in the D-III championship game two years ago.

"We've had a history in the past two or three years. Most of the games we have with them are real close," said Tail Laifer, who scored one of the SWS goals. "Coming into the game we were really pumped up to play them. It was disappointing but we played as well as we could have. We had a couple of tough breaks."

"We hit a couple of posts -- which happens every game," Unker said. The toughest of the breaks that didn't go his team's way was with four seconds remaining. Unker thought they had tied the game but Aaron Liu's bid for his second goal of the night, which would have tied the game, was waived off because it was ruled that the whistle was blown to stop play before the shot was taken. "It seemed like we scored but, what can I say, they called no goal," Unker said.

The Wreckers scored first and built a 3-1 lead on goals by Liu, Dan Guerrera and Laifer. Kyle Wehmhoff had two assists, and Ben Brancucci and Guerrera also had helpers. The Cadets came back and got what turned out to be the game-winner with 19 seconds left in regulation to clich the win in this highly anticipated clash.

"Coming into the game it was probably the biggest game of the season so far," said Andriuk, who kicked aside shot after shot and was credited with 36 saves.

"Luke played really, really well," said Unker, adding that St. Joseph's first and fourth goals could have been denied by stronger defensive play -- one on an odd-man rush and the other on a play in which the D didn't clear the puck away from the goal area. "You make a mistake, a good team makes you pay and that's what they did," the coach added.

Unker was pleased with his team's effort. "We were right there `til the end. I was very happy with the effort my guys put forth," he said.

"It just shows we have the ability to play with the better teams in the state," Laifer said.

Staples will get another tough test against always-tough Darien which is a deceptive 3-5-1 since it is another D-I team.

"Darien's always been a really, really tough team," said Andriuk, adding that his team lost a close one to DHS last year. "I think it should be a really good game again."

"We're just going to have to go in with the same attitude we had going in against St. Joes and play hard," Laifer added.

Unker entered the game with confidence that his team would do well if it executes the game plan to play somewhat conservatively in the offensive zone to reduce the risk of odd-man rushes the other way. "I think we'll be up for the challenge," he said.

Staples will be without Steve Schulman for a game since Schulman was disqualified after defending a teammate against the Cadets in a scuffle that took place late in the game. St. Joseph's Conor Crouse was also benched for a game because of this incident.