ATTLEBORO, Mass. – Coming into Sunday afternoon’s Div. 2 South preliminary round game, Taunton had never beaten North Attleboro. The Tigers had a couple of ties against the Rocketeers prior to joining the Hockomock League, but no wins. They found the perfect time to change that record.
Behind a strong performance from senior goalie Sean Bunker (36 saves) and a pair of breakaway goals, Taunton came from behind for 2-1 victory at the New England Sports Village, overcoming North’s 37-14 edge in shots on goals.
“He played awesome,” Taunton coach Kris Metea said. “He has big game experience. He knows that no rebounds means no goals, and he controlled everything, he smothered everything, and got us whistles. He did everything we needed him to do.”
Bunker made 17 saves in the first period alone and had several memorable stops, including a diving glove save to rob Jack Connolly in the opening period, a big pad stop on a Dennis Morehouse breakaway with three minutes to play, and a flash of his glove to stop Will Yeomans in the final minute.
“There were a lot of pucks lying around that we’ve got put it in,” North coach Ben McManama said. “We’ve got to bear down, but that’s been us all year. We want the easy goals but we’ve got to work harder to get those dirty, greasy goals. I thought we played pretty well.”
North came out flying to start the game, putting 18 shots on goal in the first and using its size and physicality to keep the Tigers pinned back in the defensive zone. Matt McSweeney had a chance at the post after a puck rebounded off the back boards, but Bunker got his pad down to make the stop and to block the ensuing scrum.
After five minutes, the pressure paid off with the opening goal. Tyler Sarro drove down the right wing and got below the goal line before firing a pass to the edge of the crease where Brady Sarro was on hand to redirect the pass through the five-hole from point-blank range.
Taunton had a couple of chances in the first. Michael Albert had a shot from the right circle on a quick transition and Colton Scheralis had a pair of chances at the post that Nick Digiacomo (12 saves) was able to smother.
The Rocketeers thought they had doubled their lead with three minutes left in the period. Morehouse gained the zone and fired a shot towards goal that took a deflection to Connolly at the far post. The forward knocked the loose puck towards what appeared to be an empty net, only to have Bunker dive across and make the stop.
In the second period, North managed eight shots, but struggled at times to gain the zone. The Taunton defense looked more comfortable than in the first, although Metea said there were no significant changes between periods.
“We knew that in the first period we were going to have to weather the storm,” Metea explained. “We said, you’re in the game, just keep doing what you have to do, box it up, stay tight, wait for your opportunities. They stayed with it and it was awesome.”
With 11:32 left in the second, Taunton used its lone scoring chance of the period to tie the game. Connor McGrath flipped a puck out of the zone and the North defense struggled to control the bounce. Albert pounced and got a free skate at goal. Taunton’s leading scorer planted a shot just under the bar on the glove save to make it 1-1.
North had a flurry late in the period. Jeff Baker picked out Nick Longa right in front of goal, but Bunker made the pad stop. Jake McNeany was allowed to skate right down the slot but his chance went just wide and then McSweeney collected the loose puck and forced another big save from the Taunton netminder.
“They give us fits because they block shots, they do the right things, and they’re tougher in front of the net then we are,” said McManama. “That’s it. They were tougher in the dirty areas and my hat’s off to them. We’ve got to play through that better.”
Both teams had chances early in the third to try and grab the lead. North used the defensemen and threw bodies in front to try and cause problems for Bunker. On the other end, Digiacomo had to be quick with the blocker to stop a shot through a screen.
Connolly had a pair of chances for the Rocketeers. He drove behind the net and faked Bunker out to open space at the post, but the puck rolled off his stick as he went to score. Sam Clarke then set Connolly up inside the right face-off dot but he sent his shot just past the top corner.
“We missed the net a ton tonight,” said McManama. “We had a lot of shots on goal but we had even more shot attempts, a ton more. We’ve got to hit the net.”
The missed chances came back to haunt North. Scheralis slipped a puck through a pair of defensemen at the blue line and into the path of fellow freshman McGrath. The forward raced in alone on goal and showed great composure to fire a shot into the top corner for a shock lead.
Metea said, “We knew that they come in so hard that one pass through the ‘D’ will probably allow us to flip it out to center and allow our wings to go to work. I felt confident we could beat them in a footrace and we got the chances off that and I’m thankful that they stepped in.”
North was increasingly desperate for an equalizer as time wore down, but Bunker continued to be unbeatable. He stuffed Morehouse on a break down the right wing and then showed quick hands to deny Yeomans after Nik Kojoian teed him up right in front of goal.
“North played great, but Sean was equal to the test,” said Metea. “Goaltenders are the greatest equalizer and if you have a good one then you’re going to be in games.”
Taunton (10-9-3) will try to get some more strong play from Bunker and upset another league opponent when it travels to top seed Canton on Wednesday night.