By Conor Walsh
---- — HAVERHILL — In December, a full-strength Rockport hockey team dropped a one-goal game to Pentucket.
In that game, the Sachems’ top line of Tom Pingree, John Orlando and Ian Mitchell piled up all five of Pentucket’s goals to pace the win.
When the two teams met again Saturday at Haverhill’s Veterans Memorial Rink, that Pentucket top line was still intact.
Unfortunately for the Vikings, they were less than whole. Rockport lost captain Conor Douglass and third-liner Tucker Reedy for at least the rest of the regular season due to injuries suffered in a loss to Gloucester last week, and with defenseman Marc Castonguay out with the flu, an already thin Rockport roster had been further depleted.
But while Pentucket ultimately took home a decisive 5-2 victory after holding off a third-period push from the Vikings, Rockport coach Derek Papalegis was happy with what he saw.
For a team that had struggled with intensity and mental strength throughout the season, the Vikings battled for all three periods despite rolling just two lines and four defensemen. A loss is always a loss, but this may have been the kind of loss a team can build from.
”Any time you lose a senior, a captain, a top goal scorer and then a third-line physical grinder, it’s tough,” Papalegis said. “The score was what we liked, but I thought it was definitely a step in the right direction. Guys were positive on the bench and I thought we actually outplayed them, just spotted them some ‘gimme’ goals. Other than that, I thought we dictated play at times.”
It didn’t take long for those “gimme” goals to set the Vikings back, when Pingree picked a corner on a 2-on-1 to put the Sachems up by one just 35 seconds into the game.
Rockport packed it in defensively for the remainder of the first period, keeping shots to the perimeter and looking for transition.
The wheels fell off late in the first, though, when a bad offensive zone turnover sprung another Pentucket 2-on-1, this one converted by Brendan Moynihan.
Less than a minute later, a relatively harmless shot from the point trickled through traffic and past Rockport goalie Colby Foster (30 saves) to spot Pentucket a commanding 3-0 lead.
For a team that’s struggled with perseverance this season, it seemed the game could get ugly for the Vikings.
But where they’ve quit in the past, the Vikings kept battling.
They leveled the ice in the second period but were unable to get one past Pentucket goalie Sammantha Bomba (30 saves). And while the deficit grew when Orlando potted a shorthanded goal with a nifty breakaway move, Rockport continued to battle.
“We haven’t responded in the right ways throughout the season, but it was good to see the guys respond the right way,” Papalegis said. “Guys who’ve packed it in in the past raised their game. They were positive in the locker room, they didn’t give up and kept fighting and that’s all we can ask for.”
Rockport was finally rewarded at the start of the third when Mike Tupper slipped a pass behind his back to Alex Amoroso in the slot, who beat Bomba to get the Vikings on the board.
And when Dane Tolstrup laced a top-shelf beauty past Bomba on a 2-on-1 with nine minutes to play, it seemed the Vikings had life.
That momentum was lost when Orlando buried his second of the night on a rebound shortly after, and the Sachems (6-5-1) were able to hold off a late Rockport push to secure the victory.
”We were running two lines and spotting a third,” Papalegis said. “I told the guys, ‘Don’t allow yourself to use the injuries as an excuse, play your best,’ and I think they did. I thought they stepped up and manned up, especially running two lines guys were dead on the bench but they were popping back up and were ready to go.”
At 5-7, a state tournament berth for Rockport is far from a certainty. But with three games left in the Vikings’ middling conference schedule and a game with a weak Revere team left on the schedule, the Vikings will look to translate the effort from Saturday’s loss into wins down the road.
”It’s not the outcome we wanted, but the effort’s there,” Papalegis said. “They were positive in the locker room. It’s something we can build on.”