NORTH SMITHFIELD -- North Smithfield entered this week knowing full well that if the Northmen wanted to qualify for the Division II playoffs, they would need to produce a win or two over their final three regular-season games.
But at first glance, that seemed to be a chore that was easier said than done. Those three contests – over a five-day span – were against teams with winning records, and two were versus opponents that had already secured a spot in the eight-team tournament that begins on Friday, March 1.
One of those playoff teams, the Division II-Central leading Prout School, strolled into the Rhode Island Sports Center on Monday for a makeup contest against the Northmen and a chance to clinch a tie for their division title.
But the Northmen, who skated into this showdown with victories in four of their last five games, continued their winning ways and put themselves on the doorstep of a postseason berth by skating to a hard-fought 4-2 triumph.
Senior Matt Prudhomme scored his ninth and 10th goals of the year to lead the Northmen (10-6) offensively, and it was his second goal, with 5:58 to play in the game, that broke a 2-2 draw and helped send his team to its fourth win in a row.
And goalie and senior captain Erik Pelletier ended up with 29 saves and made his team’s lead stand up with six of his stops over the final 4:21 of play.
“This is a very big win,” admitted N.S. coach Paul Nadeau, whose team was only playing its third home game this season at the Route 146 arena. “(Prout) is a solid team, and all of [Prout coach John] Gaffney’s teams are always well-coached and he always plays to their strengths, so I knew this [game] was going to be tough.”
This week, in general, is a tough one for the Northmen, who now have to travel to URI’s Boss Arena tomorrow for a 6:30 p.m. battle against East Greenwich, which at 9-5, is one of six teams in the division fighting for one of the final four playoff spots.
Then on Friday at 7:30 p.m., the Northmen will face Cumberland at Adelard Arena, and the Clippers, at 10-3-1, have already locked up a playoff berth, along with the Crusaders (11-3), Lincoln (16-0-1), and North Kingstown (11-6).
“The way I see it, if we’re going to be successful this week, then we’re going to have the play the type of hockey that’s going to help us in the playoffs anyway,” said Nadeau. “If we’re going to go out and play cupcakes and then enter the playoffs slow, it’s going to be a quick exit. So either we’re ready to play our best hockey at this point (of the season) or we’re not, and I think playing better teams now will hopefully elevate us.”
If the Northmen end up losing their final two games, they still may sneak in the backdoor of the playoffs, but they would have to do some scoreboard watching and pull for teams to beat the Rogers/Tiverton/Rocky Hill co-op team (10-4), Middletown (8-7), Portsmouth (7-6), and Pilgrim (7-8).
In Monday’s victory over the Crusaders, the Northmen quickly found themselves bottled up in their zone, but they managed to turn the tables on the Crusaders and net two quick goals, the first by Prudhomme off a pass by Dylan Naradowy at 3:12, and the next on an unassisted goal by freshman Riley Boucher at 7:57.
A minute and a half after Boucher’s goal, the Crusaders cut its deficit in half on a power-play goal by Nyle Sockbeson, and the score remained that way until Justin Mateus tied it up for Prout 58 seconds into the third period.
But at 9:02, Prudhomme put the Northmen ahead to stay, as he took another pass from Naradowy and flipped a shot over the right shoulder of goalie Austin Gemma as he dove across the net in an attempt to stop it.
After the Northmen killed off a pair of penalties in the final five minutes of the game, the Crusaders called a time-out with 1:04 on the clock and yanked Gemma in favor of a sixth attacker. But the move backfired, for 12 seconds later, Naradowy picked up a loose puck near center ice and was able to score an empty-net goal to ice the verdict.
The victory marks the first time the Northmen have recorded double digits in wins since they went 10-6-2 in their final season as a Division III team three years ago. They went up to Division II two years ago and only produced seven wins and two ties over the next two years, mostly with very young teams that totaled just three seniors.
“When we came up (to Division II) two years ago, we only had two upperclassmen, so all these kids who are seniors now were sophomores,” said Nadeau, whose group of seniors this season also includes Maxx Forti, Devan Dube, Zach Cordeiro, and Neil Skalubinski.
“We kind of came up with the mindset that we might have a tough time, but ultimately, it’s going to make these players better, and based on the way these guys are playing, it looks like that experiment has worked. We’ve finally played up to this level and we feel like we belong here.”