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GOFFSTOWN - The Bedford High School hockey team went into the final week of the regular season searching for a signature win and didn't get one.
Instead the defending Division II champs got three, including back-to-back wins over previously undefeated Merrimack, the last of which was a 3-1 decision with the Tomahawks at Sullivan Arena on Saturday. The Bulldogs also avenged one of their losses from earlier in the season with a win over Goffstown on Wednesday and handed Merrimack its first loss of the season on Thursday.
"The kids are starting to figure it out," Bedford coach Marty Myers said. "They're starting to play truly as a team. Not that we didn't play early like this, we didn't play as hard like this."
The Bulldogs finish the regular season on a five-game unbeaten streak and have locked up the No. 3 seed for the Division II tournament with a record of 13-3-2. The two losses to Bedford are the only on the season for Merrimack, which will take one of the top two seeds in the playoffs at 16-2.
"They jumped up with emotion real quick and popped two in the first," Merrimack coach Kurt Mithoefer said. "You take those away and it's a 1-1 game again. I think we need to string together 45 minutes of hard-nosed hockey."
Prior to last week, Bedford had struggled against the elite teams in Division II and had a stretch where it went 0-2-1 with losses to Dover on Feb. 6, Spaulding of Rochester on Feb. 12 and a tie against Bow on Feb. 14. The team hasn't lost since the game against the Red Raiders, and seems to be playing its best hockey.
"We were missing something all season," Bedford goalie Stevan Tempesta said. "It wasn't talent and we were scoring goals. It was something on the inside that wasn't there. Getting these two wins, we're just riding a wave going into the playoffs now."
The Bulldogs took control of the outing with goals just 17 seconds apart early in the first period. Kurt Mitchell netted the first one to make it 1-0 at the 3:59 mark, and then Benjamin Desrosiers made it a 2-0 game when he lit the lamp at the 4:16 mark.
The Bulldogs asserted themselves with physical play and their defense did a good job bottling up the explosive Tomahawk forwards.
It was 2-0 after one period and Merrimack came out flying to start the second. The Tomahawks were all over Bedford and outshot the Bulldogs 8-0 over the first four minutes. They didn't have any luck beating Bedford goalie Stevan Tempesta, however, and it was the Bulldogs who got the only goal of the period.
That came with 2:10 left during a two-on-one with Michael Dee and Christopher Viola. Dee held the puck as long as he could, got the defender to commit and made a pass to Viola, who buried the goal to make it 3-0.
"He just made a great move on the defenseman," Viola said. "He faked a shot, slid it to me and I finished it."
Merrimack got some better chances in the third and capitalized on one with 6:23 left to play when Evan McCormick scored on a wrist shot from the point to make it 3-1.
Tempesta was solid after that and denied two great bids by a couple of Merrimack's best snipers. The first came on a shot by Shane Foye with 2:58 remaining, and the last was on a partial break by league-leading scorer Connor Powell with less than a minute left.
There were two other times when Powell broke in on Tempesta, once last year and then again on Thursday, and Tempesta said there was something similar about each time.
"Same move every time, same spot," Tempesta said. "It was right up on my elbow on my blocker side and he put it right there for me. All I had to do was come out and take down the net and he didn't know where to put it."
Thanks to good goaltending like that, the Bulldogs managed to hold on for the win and enter the tournament with a ton of momentum and a better chance of defending their title.
"We're playing harder, we're playing smarter and therefore we're playing better," Myers said.