Published January 14, 2021


SAM ELLIOTT stops a shot during an early Triton power play on Jan. 6. The junior had plenty of big saves during North Reading’s season opener against the Vikings at Kasabuski Rink. (NRHS Athletics Photo)

SAUGUS — Last season, the North Reading hockey team didn’t fare very well against Triton, losing a pair of decisions by a combined 11-1 tally. The trend continued last Wednesday night as the Hornets dropped their season-opener to their nemesis, 3-0.

On the strength of a goal in each of the three periods, the Vikings skated out of Kasabuski Rink with a decisive shutout win and took with them the ambitious Hornets’ hope that they could run the table of their COVID-abbreviated 2021 schedule.

That schedule, originally 10 games deep, has already begun to dwindle as a number of schools in the Cape Ann League have turned up positive virus cases, forcing officials to cancel upcoming contests. Thus far, Newburyport and Amesbury have scratched and it’s likely others will follow.

The game itself was a bit surreal, contested in an empty facility, save for a smattering of school officials. The MIAA, along with health experts, deemed it necessary to ban spectators as a safety precaution. Kasabuski, with its high-arched, cavernous roof design, has a tendency to echo the sounds of hockey. It was amplified even further without people in the stands. At times, when the players were idle, chatter amongst them could clearly be heard along with coaching instructions, even from a distance. Very strange, indeed.

One of the oddest aspects of this game was the MIAA requirement that the on-ice officials use handheld electronic whistles. There were times when the referee was rather overzealous with the device, including midway through the third period, when tri-captain Matt Ryan was “whistled” for a borderline elbowing infraction. At the time, North Reading faced a 2-0 deficit and was still in the hunt. But the untimely penalty resulted in a Triton power play goal and the Hornets were unable to recover.

“Triton is very dangerous on the power play,” said North Reading coach Brian McAuliffe, who pointed out that his opponent returned last year’s North playoff contender nearly intact. “With that in mind, we tried to stay disciplined and out of the box.”

Triton carried the play through much of the first period, testing Hornets’ junior netminder Samuel Elliott early and often. At the outset of his debut, Elliott stood his ground and stonewalled the Viking effort, including during a man-advantage opportunity in the opening minutes.

“Sam played an awesome game tonight and had a number of huge saves,” said McAuliffe, when asked to comment on Elliott’s performance. “I agree – he really flashed the leather. We’re also looking forward to freshman goalie Marty Pierce, who will split time with Sam. We’re in a good place with two outstanding goalies.”

Later in the first frame, still deadlocked, an undisciplined Triton squad committed ill-advised penalties, handing their host back-to-back power plays. The Hornets had their chances, leveling several bids on sophomore goalie Wesley Rollins. Unfortunately, an errant pass, fed back to an unoccupied point, proved costly. Viking Cael Kohan collected the wayward puck and swiftly skated toward the net. Reaching Elliott, Kohan deftly tapped it five-hole. The go-ahead goal, shorthanded and unassisted, would later prove to be the game-winner.

Midway through the middle frame, James Tatro, with help from Alex Monteiro and Kohan, beat Elliott with a rising wrister to put the Vikings in front, 2-0. Meanwhile, the Hornets struggled to mount an offensive threat.

“I thought we outplayed them in the second and third but we just couldn’t capitalize,” said McAuliffe. “I think a lot of what took place was due to our inability to control the puck; things like basic stick-handling, losing the puck, making passes into skates instead of tape. It really impacted the flow of the game.”

Triton’s Jake Forrest added a power play goal with 8:20 remaining to wrap up the scoring.

In the final minutes, McAuliffe opted to exchange Elliott for an extra-skater, in hopes of snapping the shutout. While the Hornets were able to contain during this segment, Rollins was equal to the task.

“Overall, I told the guys I liked the effort but the execution wasn’t there,” said McAuliffe, who next hosted archrival Lynnfield Wednesday night after press time. “I really think this could have gone the other way if we had been able to bury a couple of our chances. But that’s the nature of this game.”