Published December 20, 2018


NEWBURYPORT — As the 2018-19 hockey season gets underway in earnest, the North Reading Hornets find themselves winless after the first three outings. But the rocky start doesn’t tell the full story of this team which most would agree, shows great promise for the campaign ahead.

The glass half-empty observers might say the Hornets are lacking offensive firepower and the ability to rally from deficits. The glass half-full optimists, on the other hand, would concur that this team is stocked with unpolished talent that finally began to reveal itself on Tuesday night, while facing a top-notch undefeated Newburyport club.

The Hornets skated toe-to-toe with the Clippers and were never out of the game. Ultimately, North Reading was outdone by a wayward bounce which resulted in a shorthanded goal and a lead Newburyport would not relinquish en route to a 4-2 win.

CAPTAIN Josh Zelikman is off to a fast start for the Hornets, racking up four goals and an assist during team’s first three games. (Dan Pawlowski File Photo)

“I never feel good about a loss but there’s a difference between losing and getting beat,” said North Reading head coach John Giuliotti, who led the Hornets to a 10-8-3 finish last year, including a trip to the MIAA Division 2 North tournament. “Our guys competed tonight against a very good team, a Division 1 team that has had its share of success and I’m proud of the effort. Everyone who was in the lineup tonight really grew a little bit.”

North Reading suffered a similar fate in its opener against Triton last Wednesday at Kasabuski. The Hornets trailed by a pair after the first period but battled back to halve the deficit when Josh Zelikman combined with William McCann and Dylan Babcock for a power play goal. With 8:24 remaining in the middle frame, Alex VerColen collected a feed from the point and deftly lifted a backhander to beat Viking goaltender Ben Fougere for the tying goal. Unfortunately, Triton recaptured the lead at the tail end of the second and never looked back, adding a pair of insurance goals to salt away a 5-2 win.

“We knew having our first game against an opponent like Triton was going to be difficult,” said Giuliotti soon after he was dealt the first defeat of the season. “We had a lot of kids in our lineup who were playing varsity for the first time. We’re still very early and we’re not there yet. I was disappointed with the loss but I’m not disappointed with their play because I know we’ll improve.”

North Reading dropped their next game to the Haverhill Hillies on Saturday night. Haverhill came in having suffered a pair of routs in its first two, including a 9-2 drubbing from Lincoln Sudbury. If ever there was a chance for the Hornets to even their record, a gainful trip to the Veteran’s Memorial rink seemed assured. But despite outshooting Haverhill by a wide 39-19 margin, North Reading fell short, 4-2.

“The team played hard but it was a frustrating game,” said Giuliotti. “We couldn’t generate any flow and we were unable to convert on opportunities. We are still trying to find our identity.”

In the face of all the negatives, at least one positive rose above it all and continued to impress in the third game of the young season. Senior tri-captain Josh Zelikman has now scored four of the Hornets’ six goals, including one against Triton, both in the Haverhill match-up, and a power play score in the bout with Newburyport.

Zelikman also provided the helper on a game-tying goal after the Clippers claimed an early 1-0 lead. Skating on the man-advantage late in the first period, Zelikman fired a blast from the point that was knocked down by goalie Jackson Marshall. But the Hornet’s Mark Potter, positioned on the doorstep, put the rebound in the back of the net.

Newburyport’s Ben Reynolds closed out the first by beating Hornets netminder Cameron Alter five-hole after fishing the puck out of heavy traffic in front. Alter stonewalled an opportunistic Newburyport in a scoreless second period, however, making 10 of his 25 saves on the night.

Penalties were few and far between until the third period when the officials started to dish out multiple infractions, including back-to-back charging calls for a pair of disorderly Clippers. The end result was a 2-minute 5-on-3 opportunity for the Hornets and a chance to tie the game. Instead, it was Newburyport claiming a commanding 3-1 lead on Owen Spence’s shorthanded breakaway goal.

“That was a tough one,” said Giuliotti. “That was a circumstantial goal and it was certainly a back-breaker at that point in the game. But we never quit and kept competing.”

North Reading got one back on Zelikman’s fourth of the season, again on the power play, but Newburyport closed it out with an empty-netter in the waning seconds.

“I’ve said it before but we have a lot of kids in the lineup who are playing varsity for the first time,” said Giuliotti, who will next face Saugus on December 26 in the Kasabuski Christmas Classic. “We know this is a work in progress and tonight’s game was a step in the right direction.”