The U-32 High School boys hockey team boasts three players with at least 39 points, part of speedy, high-octane attack that has put away 134 goals — or 6.1 tallies per game — this winter.
Burr and Burton Academy goaltender Zack Stewart kept U-32 to half that number in two games in the regular season, including a standing-on-his-head, 50-save performance in the teams’ 2-2 deadlock last month.
Stewart is in the way of U-32’s chances of a repeat while the Bulldog senior hopes to bring his program back to state glory in tonight’s Division II championship game at the University of Vermont’s Gutterson Fieldhouse. Game time is 6:30 p.m., the first of a finals doubleheader prior to the Division I nightcap between South Burlington and Champlain Valley.
The top-seeded Raiders (19-2-1), a team that went from a rugged, blue-collar attitude in their championship run last winter to more of a finesse, uptempo style, can wrap up a second straight title, the first time a D-II program can claim such an achievement in 10 years.
Stewart and the third-seeded Bulldogs (17-3-1), riding a 16-0-1 unbeaten streak, have been on a mission since losing to U-32 in last year’s semifinals and can seize their first crown since 2007.
“It’s going to be more of a chess match. It’s going to come to a defensive battle, which ought to make for a great game,” said U-32 coach Dave Pickel, whose Raiders lost to BBA in the season opener prior to the tie in the second meeting. “I don’t think you could ask for a better matchup.
“They have an axe to grind and they are going to come hungry,” Pickel said.
Graduating seven seniors, the Raiders have reloaded behind defenseman Shane O’Neill (20 goals, 19 assists) and forwards Cole Mugford (20 goals, 35 assists), Jordan Jones (27 goals, 20 assists) and Forrest Smith (11 goals, 18 assists). U-32 has scored at least five goals in 16 of its 22 games.
“They have tremendous team speed and they have the best defenseman and they buy into the system (Pickel) is running,” BBA coach Cory Herrington said. “It’s going to take our best effort. (U-32’s) been here before and they know how to get it done.”
BBA brings its own firepower in Sean Paradis (21 goals, 15 assists), Brock Pollard (16 goals, eight assists) and Henry Buckley (11 goals, eight assists) – seniors who helped the Bulldogs refocus following a three-game losing streak in December. But Stewart, also a senior, has been the stopper. Entering the playoffs, he has about a .91 save percentage with a 2.3 goals-against average.
“He’s got to bring his A game and we have to have other things fall into place,” Herrington said. “We’ve relied on him all year and other guys have stepped up. He does a lot of things well and deserves to be in this place.”