This is not the Wahconah hockey team that lost 10-2 to Chicopee in January. Warriors coach Don Disbrow is certain of that.
"A lot different, in so many different ways," Disbrow said Tuesday night.
The results since then back him up, too.
The Warriors have won 12 games in a row since that Jan. 20 loss in Holyoke, and can avenge the loss in tonight's Western Mass. Division III-A championship game. The opening face-off at West Springfield's Olympia Ice Center is set for 5:30 p.m.
The improvement in the team since the loss to Chicopee -- one that Disbrow considers one of the team's worst games of the season -- starts with its forecheck. That was on display throughout Monday night's semifinal win over Belchertown, as No. 2 seed Wahconah owned the neutral zone and stifled the Orioles' offense throughout the game.
"We've changed our entire forecheck," the coach said. "Our defense I don't know if it's changed, but it has evolved 100 percent."
That defense has been stellar, too. During its current win streak, Wahconah has shut out Turners Falls, and allowed just one goal each in wins over Easthampton and Belchertown. The top defensive line Monday was Patrick Jamross and Lance McColgan, and Jamross even got involved in the offense, scoring Wahconah's second goal in the first period.
"We've got three very good defensive defensemen," Disbrow said. "Pat brings an element of puck movement and scoring back there.
Warrior goalie Roger Stedman has been solid since his return to the lineup. He gave up a last-minute goal in Monday's win, but also made 21 saves and stifled any Belchertown flurries on offense.
"Honestly, I was a little afraid," Stedman said of the last few minutes of the semifinal win. "I thought I was going to choke every time, but I knew I had a strong defense [in front of] me, so I was good."
Warrior wing Dan Flynn, who faced Wahconah last year as a St. Joseph front-line forward, said there's a sense of urgency in Stedman's game that has helped the senior stand out.
"It's really his time to shine now, and I think he's filling out as a great goalie right now," Flynn said. "It's more of a determination to play well, because it's his last few games. He controls his rebounds really well, and that's very effective in the defensive zone."
It also doesn't hurt to have two lines filled with scorers.
Wahconah's ‘blue' line of Hjalmar Gustafsson, Flynn and Andrew Beaudoin -- likely to get the start tonight -- imposed its will on Belchertown on Monday. It will be backed up by the ‘orange' line that includes Jeff Hancock, Devon Battaini and either Vinnie Orlandi or Mike Bloom up front.
"We get the puck in their zone really well, and I think we get a lot of shots," Flynn said of his line. "That's what makes us stand out. All three of us can score."
Disbrow said Gustafsson's speed and stick strength made him tough on Belchertown at both ends of the ice Monday.
"I think you have to respect his speed and his shot," the coach said. "Most people, if they don't understand the game or have a good concept of it they're just looking at the points or the goals; who's in the box score. Hjalmar probably played his best defensive game of the year [in the semifinals]."
Don't underestimate that ‘orange' line, though. Hancock's slap shot found its mark for Wahconah's first goal Monday, and Battaini scored twice in last week's quarterfinal win over Easthampton.
"Devon's got great speed and goes both ends," Disbrow said. "When [he and Hancock] are doing that together, that's a formidable line. Now you've got scoring and defense. We've got a couple of young players in Mikey and Vinnie who are chipping in."
Chicopee has pulled upsets through its run in the III-A bracket, having come in as the No. 5 seed. They can clearly score at will, as shown by both the regular-season win over Wahconah and 6-5 and 7-4 wins in the Western Mass. tournament over South Hadley and top seed Greenfield, respectively.
Forwards Ryan Kazeroid, Christian Salamon and Devan Longtin scored more than 30 points this season for the Pacers, according to MassHSHockey.com, while Nick Jablonski scored 28 points.
With 13 players of their own who scored at least 10 points this season, though, the Warriors are definitely capable of putting up a big number on the scoreboard. They'll likely have to do that tonight against Chicopee goalie Jon Santos.
Gustafsson said the Warriors can't just rely on the forecheck, though, to maximize their output.
"We know they will be flying the wings as soon as they get the puck," he wrote in a message to The Eagle, "so we gotta be ready with both defensemen plus a forward to backcheck as soon as they have puck possesion in their own zone."
To reach Matthew Sprague:
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