The Walpole Express entered the Atlantic Junior Hockey League season as two-time defending champions. The bull’s eye was clearly on the Express jerseys and the eleven other teams in the league were aiming at it.
|Chris Kennedy (left) and Ronnie Walsh (right) celebrate with owner Rob Barletta after the Express captured their third straight Atlantic Junior Hockey League championship. (Photo courtesy of Walpole Express)|
The Express lost just five of its 43 games, and two of those losses came at the hands of the New York Bobcats. Entering the playoffs, Walpole, which placed first in the regular season standings, was the odds on favorite to win its third championship in three years. Head coach Mark Kumpel’s Express swept the New Jersey Rockets and the Boston Bulldogs on its way to the AJHL finals.
The Bobcats finished the season with a 31-12-1 record and a third place finish -- 14 points behind the Express. New York fought its way to the finals with playoffs victories over Hartford Jr. Wolfpack and second place Northern Cyclones. Each series went the maximum three games. The Bobcats were battle tested and were ready to take on the champions in the best-of-three series.
In Game 1, the Express controlled the play and held the territorial edge for large parts of the first period. They held the edge in shots on goal but New York’s goaltender David Lynch was the stand out for his club. His performance kept the Express off the score board in the first period.
Walpole dented Lynch’s armor at 2:21 of the second period when Colin O’Neil scored, giving his club a 1-0 lead. After O’Neil’s goal, the puck stoppers took over until Eric Salzillo (Johnston, R.I.) put the Express ahead 2-0 at the 11:05 mark of the third period.
New York’s Christopher Wallace cut the lead in half with 6:46 remaining in the third period but that would be the only goal scored by the Bobcats.
Game 1 ended with Walpole holding a 40-22 edge in shots on goal and, subsequently, taking a 2-1 victory and a 1-0 lead in the series.
Game 2 was more of an up-and-down affair. New York was able to mount an attack early and took a 1-0 lead to the dressing room after one period on the strength of a Patrick Schule goal.
The pace of the game picked up at the start of the second period as Walpole put on a push to even the score. Anthony Valentino put the puck behind Lynch at 6:40 of the stanza to tie the contest at one goal apiece. Before the period ended, Express forward Ronnie Walsh (Abington, Mass.) put his team in front 2-1 with a marker at 12:28. That was how the period would end. Walpole was just 20 minutes away from winning its third league title in three years.
The Bobcats had other ideas at the start of the third period and created good scoring chances with creative playmaking, but an errant pass at 4:54 by a New York defenseman inside his defensive zone led to a break away by Walsh, who put a wrist shot over Lynch’s glove hand for a 3-1 Walpole lead.
The Express would proceed to play a strong defensive game the rest of the way, keeping the ‘Cats to the outside and giving up low percentage shots. The one time Walpole broke down in their zone, New York used a west-east passing play which found Wallace at the edge of Express goaltender Kyle Shapiro’s crease. Wallace snapped a hard shot to Shapiro’s glove side with 14:30 left in the third frame but that would be the last puck to get past the Walpole netminder. The Express had successfully defended the Atlantic Junior Hockey League crown for the third consecutive season.
After the victory, Kumpel spoke of his team’s commitment to playing a defensive style of hockey. “Well, you know that’s one thing we’ve prided ourselves with, the last three years in a row, we’ve been the top goals against team in the league,” Kumpel said. “We preach that offense comes from good defense and our guys did the job today. “
The coach also spoke about the goaltending of Shapiro. “ Well, he’s a ‘94 (birth year), we brought him in as the third goalie then we lost our starter who went off to AIC and we decided to see if he could do the job and he stepped in took over,” said Kumpel. “We couldn’t be happier with how he played this season.”
For captain Jake Brightbill, the only member of all three league titles and a Sacred Heart University recruit, it was the culmination of a goal of his from the start of the season, “It feels great. It never gets old. I knew we had a good team at the start of the season and we worked hard and stayed focused all season. The coaches made sure we stayed focused too. They were great to play for.”
The jubilation was felt from the players all the way to the tip-top of the organization.
“I want to congratulate all the players and our coaches for a remarkable season and the only three-peat in the history of the AJHL,” said Express Owner Rob Barletta. “Coaches (Mark) Kumpel and (Tony) Dalessio drove a hard-working Express team, guiding the players and helping the team discover what it needed to do to be victorious.”
When asked to describe the feeling of being a champion, Shapiro said, “It’s unbelievable. This team is great. Our leadership with Jake and the older guys made me feel comfortable and were supportive from my first day here. They’ve been great to me all season and I’m happy for everyone in that room.”
Next season, everyone in the Express dressing room will need to work harder and be more focused than this year’s edition because the bull’s eye will be larger than it ever has been in the history of the franchise.