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Bow hockey team falters in semifinals

EXETER – The Bow High hockey team’s surprising season was facing a road block. The Falcons were only a game away from capping off a return to the Division II playoffs with a berth in the championship game, but ahead of them stood Merrimack, the top seed and the team that had clubbed all but one of the teams it faced all year.

Coach Tim Walsh knew it was a demanding task. His team couldn’t be good. It had to be perfect.

The Falcons were not perfect. What frustrated Walsh was how far from it they were.

Bow drew even with the Tomahawks in the second period but allowed two goals later in the frame, putting itself in an inescapable hole en route to a 5-2 loss at the Rinks in Exeter.

Making the semifinals was an achievement in itself – Bow (12-4-4) missed the playoffs last year – but Walsh had a tough time accepting the way the journey ended.

“This year, finishing with the fourth seed, getting a home playoff game, getting here, is a big deal,” he said. “The biggest disappointment is that we didn’t give ourselves a chance to win by the way we played in the first two periods.”

For the Tomahawks (18-2), the final presents an opportunity at poetic justice – Merrimack will play No. 3 Bedford, which handed it its only two losses in the final games of the regular season.

“That’s kind of who we were hoping for,” Coach Kurt Mithoefer said. “We were looking forward to them a little bit. We obviously had to take care of business here, but that’s who we wanted to see in the final.”

The Tomahawks got their matchup, but not without some early pestering by the Falcons. After top scorer Connor Powell put Merrimack up with 2:38 to go in the first, Bow drew even less than four minutes into the second. Sophomore defenseman Charles Smith took the puck at the top of the zone and shot it toward the net, where a group of Falcons had gathered, and the puck made it through the traffic and into the goal to tie the score at 1 with 11:06 to go.

That was the highest point for Bow, and it was soon followed by the lowest. The Falcons went on the power play but eventually had trouble getting out of their own zone, and a loose puck drifted over to Powell in the right circle. The forward gathered it and fired a shot that beat Bow goalie Connor Simpson (18 saves), giving him 36 goals for the season and Merrimack a 2-1 lead with 8:40 left.

“The shorthanded goal … was a killer,” Walsh said. “We just couldn’t get going. I don’t know what it was. We told the kids all week long, (Powell’s) had nine shorthanded goals this year. He’s dangerous. We told them, ‘you’re playing with fire.’ ”

The other half of Merrimack’s 1-2 punch struck on the power play with 2:10 left, when Dom Valuzzi swooped in to knock in a loose puck in the crease for his 22nd goal. The Tomahawks went up 4-1 with 13:24 left in the third when Powell wove through the Bow defense but lost the puck, and Tyler Brewster was in position to fire the abandoned puck into the net.

The Falcons drew closer with 7:51 to play when Merrimack turned the puck over in its own end and Jake Rand scored on a shot from the slot. Bow kept up the pressure, outshooting the Tomahawks 12-5 and getting denied by big stops from Brett Glendye (24 saves), but nothing else went in, and the Tomahawks capped the scoring with Valuzzi’s empty-netter with 3.5 seconds to go.

“The last two months, we haven’t played like that. We played very well, every game, we competed and we worked our tails off,” Walsh said. “I just felt like, tonight, we didn’t come out with the same intensity we have the last two months, and you can’t spot a team like that … the momentum they could get.

“It’s just unfortunate that it had to end like this, because these kids have come a long way.”

(Drew Bonifant can be reached at 369-3340 or at abonifant@cmonitor.com, or via Twitter @dbonifant.)

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