COLE LOPILATO skates in on the Pentucket goal on Saturday at Veterans Memorial Ice Rink. Lopilato sent the game to overtime with a goal and the Hornets won it 3-2. (Pentucket Athletics Photo)




GLOUCESTER — As a result of the ever-evolving high school hockey schedule, North Reading embarked on a three-game journey in a span of six days, wrapping up with a Monday night visit to Gloucester for a make-up session with the Rockport/Manchester-Essex Vikings.

In that game, it was yet another brilliant, end-to-end rush from Cole Lopilato that led to a North Reading 3-2 win over a stubborn Rockport squad. But most would agree that it shouldn’t have been that close. While the Vikings have four wins to their credit, they were gained over a pair of struggling programs. It’s obvious that opponents, such as Rockport and earlier this week, Pentucket, are taking full advantage of the North Reading defensive shortfall.

“That kind of goes back to our depth chart where we just don’t have the numbers,” said North Reading Coach Brian McAuliffe, who improved to 9-2 overall with the mid-season win. “We have a handful of guys out sick and it just makes it that much more difficult to win handily. But we’re finding ways to win and that’s a sign of a good team.”

Midway through the first period, Max Forristall put North Reading in front with his first goal of the season. In the second, the clubs traded power play tallies with Matt Ryan doubling the lead followed by Rockport’s Jack Guelli beating Blake McMeniman to cut it to 2-1. With 4:42 left in the second and the Hornets somewhat stagnant, Lopilato took matters into his own hands. Collecting the puck behind McMeniman, the dynamic blue-liner sped along the right wing, cut to the net, and drilled an insurance goal and what later proved to be the game-winner after Rockport scored in the final minute.

Newburyport dropped in for a visit last Wednesday but friendly Kasabuski wasn’t quite hospitable for the home team, as the Clippers handed the Hornets a one-sided 4-1 defeat, severing what had been a seven-game win streak. North Reading hadn’t lost a contest since the opener back on December 11, but Newburyport, a Division 2 program, proved formidable despite a rocky start to their season due to illness in their ranks.

After a scoreless first period, Newburyport beat North Reading goalie Blake McMeniman inside the first two minutes of the second while skating on a power play. Hornet defenseman Cole Lopilato returned fire with 4:45 remaining in the frame, knotting the game on a highlight-worthy goal, also on the man-advantage. Patrolling the left point, Lopilato stopped a clearing attempt and settled the puck. He dodged an onrushing defenseman with a spin-move, froze the goaltender and fired point blank.

Unfortunately, the contest rapidly slipped away from the Hornets. Untimely penalties coupled with the Clippers ramping up their attack led to three unanswered scores. With 15-seconds left in the middle frame, they claimed a 2-1 lead and early in the third, tacked on two more, minutes apart.

“You could see that we were sorely missing Joe Collins, who is one of our top defensemen,” said McAuliffe. “He was sidelined tonight with an illness so that’s a problem with having such a shallow team. That’s not a knock on the guys behind him but you lose that cog and it was pretty evident that we couldn’t muster the defensive strength that we typically have against a team like that.”

McAuliffe went on to give credit to his freshman netminder who faced 39-shots in all, 20 in the third period alone.

“Blake played an unbelievable game, dealing with guys that weren’t getting picked up and other defensive breakdowns,” the coach said. “None of the goals tonight were his fault.”

On Saturday night, North Reading moved on to the Veteran’s Memorial Rink in Haverhill for a rematch with Pentucket. In mid-December, during the first go-round between these Cape Ann League foes, the Hornets dealt the Sachems a 7-0 drubbing and in this second bout, hoped for more of the same. Considering that Pentucket had only a single win to their credit, there were certainly no grounds to think otherwise. But as the game got underway, the sparse gathering of North Reading faithful, who were allowed entrance under renewed restrictions, began to grow uneasy. And when the Sachems beat goaltender Sam Elliott early in the first period, on a power play, that apprehension grew twofold.

“We knew coming in that we were still down Joe Collins and added Matt Ryan to the sick list, so two of our best defensemen were out,” explained McAuliffe. “We knew it was going to be a tough game. Pentucket played two lines hard and they had a few boys who could play.”

Senior captain Andrew Daley came to the rescue with an early second period goal to tie it. But in a pivotal third, the Sachems made the most of a power play and were back on top, 2-1.

The Hornets were clearly snake-bit. Pentucket gave up several odd-man rushes, including a three-on-one, but the Hornets came up empty. They also hit two posts and the crossbar. But one shooter who would not be denied was Lopilato, who sent the game to overtime with a blast from the right point.

Daley came through with the game-winner with 1:49 remaining in the extra stanza.

“It was a little closer tonight than we would have liked,” said Daley, who currently leads the Hornets with 10-goals and 6-assists. “I think some of our guys came in thinking we were going to roll over this team but that’s not a good attitude. I think when we fell behind, it was a big wakeup call. But we came out with a win and that’s all that matters.”

“This was a big win,” said McAuliffe. “Out goal is to win our League and we’re still very much in contention for that.”