Panthers aim for OFSAA
There are rewards for turning a season around.
St. Elizabeth’s senior boys hockey team earned a first round bye in the Division 1 playoffs. Downing Father Bressani Eagles 7-1 on Jan. 17, the Panthers clinched the fourth overall seed.
But it was the day after a successful 4-2 win over Jean Vanier Jaguars on Jan. 12 that coach Dom Cugliari gave Vaughan Today a look into his squad’s turnaround from a mid-season stumble.
Winning their first three games against Jean Vanier, St. Jean de Brebeuf and Father Bressani, they were battered by St. Theresa de Lisieux Lions in back-to-back matches, 8-1, and 6-1.
“As the season progressed, we were dealing with some chemistry issues, and I think some discipline issues on the ice,” Cugliari said. “That sort of held us back a bit.
“I know they’re a lot better now, and the team is playing better than what we saw in November.”
Panthers captain, Joey DiNardo confirmed the brief split in teamwork.
“We had to overcome suspensions, a few injuries but we’ve managed, as they say, to come together as a team and work hard to fight through those things,” he said. “We started off pretty strong, then we lost two games to a team we should have beaten, I think.”
With the newfound fusion, the Panthers have won their last two games and look to finish off the season with a match against their nemesis Father Bressani.
“It’s never (easy) against that team,” Cugliari said. “They’re sort of our rival, and they always play well against us, even in the first game we played them this year.”
The edge for the Panthers in the Jan. 17 tilt was their top line of DiNardo, Christian Teti and Michael Cuddemi, along with grade 11 Justin Gullo between the pipes.
Gullo has been with the senior squad since his freshman year, waiting in the wings patiently to be the team’s starter.
“He’s a quiet leader, and very good,” Cugliari said. “So I think the boys sort of rally around him too.”
Gullo’s story is much like that of Patrick Roy’s waiting in Sherbrooke for his time to replace Doug Soetaert.
“When he was in grade 9 we had two outstanding goalies so he didn’t play much and he came to all of our practices, great attitude and a great work ethic and he has become our number 1 goalie,” Cugliari said. “It speaks volumes that in grade 9 he knew he wasn’t going to play, he was still coming out and practising with us.”
With that talent in mind, the next step is OFSAA. With Brother Andre the reigning provincial champs, two teams from the YRAA will have a shot.
“I’m hoping,” Cugliari said. “In order to get to that point you’ve got to be good — and we are but you’ve got to be lucky as well.”
DiNardo and company are ready to hit the ice, skating full-force.
“I think we all feel we can make it to OFSAA this year,” he said. “We’re all pretty confident enough and we have the skill level and work ethic.
“I don’t think there’s any doubt in our minds that we can’t and it’s pretty much ours to lose.”