North Dakota commit Nate Benoit, left, spent a successful week with the USHL’s Tri-City Storm, but the defenseman is back in Woonsocket as the Academy U18 team prepares to defend its New England District championship this weekend.

WOONSOCKET — Even though there’s a hockey rink right down the hill from the dormitory at Mount St. Charles, the Academy U18 team spent the entire month of February as weekend residents of western Pennsylvania.

Because the state of Rhode Island had an agreement with other states in the Northeast not to play interstate youth games due to the pandemic, the Saints were forced to travel to western Pennsylvania every weekend to play some of the best teams in the country after not playing a game for nearly three months.

After suffering through a four-game winless run late in February, the squad rebounded with strong weekends against the North Jersey Avalanche and the Philadelphia Little Flyers. That’s a good sign as they head into their biggest weekend of the season when they travel up to Hudson, N.H. to compete in the USA Hockey New England District tournament.

“This year has been frustrating with all the stopping and starting,” U18 coach Matt Plante said Tuesday afternoon at Adelard Arena. “We got off to a great start, but the six-week pause from Thanksgiving to the new year really hurt us. Doing all that traveling took its toll on us, but we’re starting to see signs of what we were in October.

“We’ve been practicing really well since we’ve been back from the pause and it’s because the guys are excited and the energy is really good for this weekend. We’re starting to get our timing back, but the frustrating part is we’re not where we normally are at this time of year.”

Even though only North Dakota commit Nate Benoit is back from last season’s team, they head up to New Hampshire as the reigning district champions following a 4-1 victory over the Northern Cyclones in November of 2019. Plante, who won a U18 national title coaching at South Kent a few seasons ago, knows the grind the Mount kids are about to endure this weekend.

The squad starts the three-day tournament with a 5:10 p.m. game Friday night against a Connecticut Elite team they defeated at Adelard 4-1 in September. The Saints will play South Kent and Mid-Fairfield on Saturday. The semifinals and title game take place on Sunday at Cyclones Arena in Hudson.

“It’d be nice to go back to back, but a lot of these guys were on the U16 team that lost to Mid-Fairfield in the final, so there’s a little chip on their shoulder,” Plante said. “They all came back for the same reason and that’s to win a national championship. It’s tough to play 20-minute periods and play five games in a weekend. It’s really more of an emotional grind and you have to be able to manage the ups and downs.”

The biggest reason the U18 team navigated the five-game grind last season was the presence of two solid goalies. Bennett Jung was strong in two games, including the semifinals, before Princeton commit Ethan Pearson was the first star in the title-game victory over the Cyclones. This season’s team also features a pair of solid goalies in Tade Carman and Tommy Heaney.

Carman has been solid in his second season in the program, but Heaney has developed into one of the elite goalies at the midget level. Heaney has allowed 1.70 goals per game and has a .915 save percentage in 14 games.

Plante said the Mount senior has drawn interest from Cornell, but any college commitment will come next year when he’s playing junior hockey.

“You need two goalies to win this and that’s the luxury we had last year because [Pearson] was fresh for the final,” Plante said. “This year we have something similar with Tommy and Tade. Tommy’s been great and before we had to go through the recent pause, he was just locked in and playing great.”

This season’s team isn’t as deep as last season’s squad on the blue line, especially after Wisconsin commit Grayden Dual left the program in January to play for the Janesville Jets in the NAHL. Benoit (nine goals and 16 assists) will almost certainly be the best player in the tournament this weekend after his outstanding weekend with the USHL’s Sioux City Storm, while the rest of the blue line consists of talented players like Lincoln’s Tommy DelFarno, Jimmy Goffredo, Logan Dapprich, Jake Howard and Matt McQuaid.

Offensively, the top line of Owen McLoughlin (Penn State), Jayden Sison (Princeton) and Sixten Jennersjo (Long Island) will be relied on heavily this weekend. Jennersjo leads the team with 18 goals and 39 points, while McLoughlin, who saw some time with the NTDP U18 team, has a team-high 30 assists and 39 points.

Mount juniors Zach Aben (7-13-20) and Ryan O’Connell (7-11-18) have been solid contributors on the second line.

“That first line has been really good and the numbers they have put up speak for themselves,” Plante said. “Aben has been playing extremely well. I really like his progress because he plays hard, he plays heavy and he plays in straight lines. Hopefully he’s poised to have a big weekend because you could see this coming in the fall.”

The Saints enter the weekend as the favorite to win the title simply because they are the highest ranked team in the field according to MyHockeyRankings. They are ranked third in the country behind Minnesota’s Shattuck St. Mary’s and Pittsburgh Penguins Elite. The Maine Nordiques, who the Saints came from behind to tie in February, are ranked seventh in the country. South Kent is 25th, Mid-Fairfield is 26th and Connecticut Elite is 53rd.

Because Massachusetts opted out of competing, there’s an extra wild-card spot available, but Plante doesn’t want to rely on USA Hockey for a spot at Nationals later this month in St. Louis.

“I certainly feel like we can win it, but it’s going to be up to the kids,” Plante said. “We’ve beaten Mid-Fairfield and we’ve beaten Elite and tied Maine, but we weren’t great in that game. They will be tough and they will be good and up to play us, but we’ll be up to play them. I don’t know where we were the first time around. I’d like to think we’d get an at-large, but you just don’t know. Our focus is to take that guessing game out of it.”

Follow Branden Mello on Twitter @Branden_Mello

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