SALEM — Kyle Svenson and his Salem teammates knew what was at stake when they skated onto the ice to face Bedford in a battle of New Hampshire hockey unbeatens.
“This game has been marked on our calendars for a long time,” said the senior winger. “We wanted this game bad. We’ve been dreaming of this game for weeks. We knew that if we could beat Bedford, it would give us confidence that we have the ability to win a state championship.”
With the game tied after two periods, senior John Gray’s goal kicked off a dominant third period for Salem, as the Blue Devils took grasp of the top spot in New Hampshire Division 1 with a 5-2 victory over Bedford.
“This is a huge win for us,” said senior defenseman Paul Antkowiak. “Right now we feel like we can do anything. Bedford is a terrific program and to beat them is amazing. We have to take this victory and build off of it.”
The Blue Devils improved to 9-0-1 with the victory (12-0-1 overall), emerging as the final undefeated team in Division 1.
Bedford — in its first year in Division 1 after winning three straight Division 2 state titles — dropped to 9-1-0 with the loss.
“I don’t know if we were the underdogs or if it was even,” said Salem coach Mark McGinn. “But we were in second place, so this is a huge win. The game certainly lived up to the billing. We don’t have a history against Bedford, but I can tell you that, from here on, this is going to be a great rivalry.”
Salem dominated the puck in the first period, but the frame ended 0-0 after Bulldogs goalie Alec Lindbeg made a pair of acrobatic saves, and a blast by Blue Devils star Kyle Nagri clanked off the post.
“It was frustrating because we felt like we were outplaying them,” said Svenson. “Sometimes it takes us a while to get going, but once we start scoring goals we keep the momentum going.”
Nagri would not be denied on his next opportunity. With the Devils on the power play, junior Chris Lemay took the puck behind the net and sent a pass in front of Nagri, who fired it home for his team-best 15th goal of the season.
Just 11 seconds later, before fans could blink, Svenson then made it 2-0 with a goal right off the ensuing faceoff.
But Beford bounced right back, and by the end of the second the game was tied 2-2.
“We knew that we just had to capitalize on our opportunities,” said Antkowiak. “We have dealt with moments like that before. We know that the third period is our best, and we knew that we could go out and execute.”
It was an unsung hero that stepped up to send the Devils back into control.
Defenseman Alex Zannini fired a shot on goal that was saved, but Gray was there to pick up the rebound and bury it into the low left corner of the net for his third goal of the season.
“That was a huge goal for Gray,” said Svenson. “He moved to defense and has been a big part of our success. He hasn’t been selfish and has done anything asked of him. He also has a great shot, and it was awesome to see him get back on the score sheet.”
It remained a one-goal game until the final 2:38, when Jared Carlson hauled in a bouncing puck and punched it in for an insurance goal.
Svenson then sealed the deal with his second goal of the game, and 12th of the season, an empty-netter with 1:27 remaining.
“It felt so good to drive the dagger into their hearts,” said Svenson. “Beating a team like Bedford is very encouraging. We never gave up, we kept working and this is a big win.”
Blue Devils goalie Sam MacDonald wasn’t tested often, but did turn in 17 key saves including a highlight-reel glove save while in a split.
“He came up huge with those saves,” said Antkowiak. “Having him in net is a big reason we believe we can win every game.”
After a matchup with Exeter (4-3-1) on Wednesday, Salem will face a tough test against rival Londonderry (6-3-0 Division 1) on Saturday at the Icenter.
“Any competitor wants the challenge of facing a good team,” said McGinn. “It was great to see guys like Gray and Carlson make big plays, and the whole team played very well.”
Salem 5, Bedford 2
Bedford (9-1-0 NH Div. 1): 0 2 0 — 2
Salem (12-0-1, 9-0-1 NH Div. 1): 0 2 3 — 5
Goals: S — Kyle Svenson 2, Kyle Nagri, John Gray, Jared Carlson; B — Max Giroux, Jacob Rioux
Assists: S — Chris Lemay 2, Jake Burns, Gray, Alex Zannini, Svenson, Nagri, Cody Soucy; B — Alex Abad, Jake Roberto
Saves: S — Sam MacDonald 17; B — Alec Linberg 25
David Willis is a sportswriter/videographer for The Eagle-Tribune. Reach him on twitter at @DWillisET