HAMDEN — Even though Cheshire was the favorite by seeding and had won 10 of its last 11 games before the playoffs, Trumbull made better use of its chances to pull off a first-round upset Tuesday in the CIAC Division II state hockey tournament.
The No. 3-seeded Rams saw their season end with a 4-1 defeat to the No. 14 Eagles at Lou Astorino Arena.
Cheshire finished at 14-7-0, while Trumbull improved to 10-11-0 and heads to a quarterfinal matchup with No. 6 Branford on Friday.
Against Cheshire, Trumbull took advantage of mistakes and received outstanding goalie play from Gabe Deist, who made 45 saves. Among the 45 were two jaw-dropping sliding pad saves on odd-man rushes to preserve the lead late in the third period.
“There are a lot of tears in there,” Cheshire coach Anthony Giusto said after giving his locker room post-game speech. “If we didn’t put so much into it, it wouldn’t hurt this bad.”
Cheshire fell behind early, tied it, then quickly let it slip away again.
The shot totals, favoring Cheshire 46-23, suggest the Rams played better throughout, but the strategy of firing pucks at the net didn’t work against Deist. The Rams changed their game plan with time winding down to get more skaters in front of the net, but it was too late.
“We’re a much different team when we have the lead,” Giusto said. “To get down early, we started playing a different style of hockey. We started playing more offensive and on our toes to catch up.
“Sometimes it works, but that’s when you leave yourself open to give up goals, which is what happened to us.”
The first period saw Cheshire outshoot Trumbull 17-5, yet the only puck to reach the back of the net came on a deflection by Eagles forward Tyler Hickey 2:02 into the game.
Cheshire’s 17 shots included four on the lone power play of the period, but Deist made every necessary save.
“We thought we played a really good first period,” Giusto said. “To come back to the locker room down 1-0 felt a little bit dejecting.
“They played a good game,” Giusto added. “Give them credit.”
Trumbull’s only costly mistake was allowing a clean two-on-one chance for Cheshire forwards Rocco Ocone-Krause and Biagio Pepe. Ocone-Krause had a good shot waiting for him after a takeaway by Drew DePodesta, but passed it up for a better one across the crease that Pepe easily buried to tie the game at 6:30 in the second period.
After the tying goal, though, Cheshire started to falter.
Junior defenseman Ryan Fraser committed a holding penalty at 8:13, which Cheshire easily killed, but with continued possession Trumbull scored 25 seconds after the power play expired.
The goal was a snipe from defenseman Nikolas Smagacz after a faceoff.
With 56 seconds left in the second period, Trumbull went back to the power play after a trip by DePodesta, and this time scored just five seconds in on a wrister by senior captain Jake Terlik to make it 3-1.
Additionally, Cheshire players let the puck slip off their stick on rushes at least three times in the period and lined up incorrectly on a defensive zone faceoff, drawing Giusto’s ire from the bench.
“Leading up to this, the one thing we were worried about was our lack of playoff experience,” Giusto said. “You could tell there were some nerves in that locker room before the game. You start seeing some of those mental mistakes come out. I think that’s what cost us.”
Cheshire killed off an early third-period penalty and made a few bids to bring the game back, but Deist stopped everything.
The Rams had a power play chance with just over six minutes left, but struggled to keep the puck in the zone and it ended when they committed a penalty of their own.
Cheshire senior goalie Jack Falk made a highlight-reel, cross-crease save of his own with just over two minutes left to keep the Rams alive — one of his 19 saves — but after a timeout he went to the bench and watched Trumbull forward Jacques Roy put the puck in the empty net.
Cheshire’s graduating class includes Falk and co-captains Ocone-Krause and Will Gaudet, among other notable names.
“I feel bad for our 10 seniors,” Giusto said. “They didn’t get sent off the way we wanted to send them off, which hurts because I felt like we had a real special group this year.
“I’ll look back on this year as one of the best teams I’ve coached.”