WILMINGTON, Mass. -- Three weeks ago, Reading head coach Mark Doherty made some changes to his offense, moving senior captain Rob Devaney onto a line with Jake Barbera and Mike Thomson in hopes of sparking something within the Rockets system.
In Saturday's Middlesex League crossover matchup against Wilmington, that unit came through in the clutch as Barbera had a goal and an assist while Devaney popped the eventual game-winning goal with 3:07 left to play as the fourth-ranked Rockets bested the 12th-ranked Wildcats, 3-1, at Ristuccia Arena.
"Midway through the season, we weren't getting much offense so we just tried to shake up the lines," Devaney explained. "Obviously, we've all played with each other since we we've been about five years old so it wasn't too much, just to get something new in the system. We tried changing the system a little bit and I think it paid off. We're coming our harder, getting more opportunities, getting more shots and that's the kind of team we are. Get shots and go to the net hard."
"We always know where each other are," he added. "We always keep that third guy high. We cycle the puck real well. I'm one of the smaller guys but Jake Barbera is a big kid and he creates room for me and Mike and we're able to just pass it back and forth and get good shots for rebounds."
With the game tied, 1-1, heading into the third period, Reading (15-1-5) caught Wilmington (14-3-1) in a line change and defenseman Andrew Lawrence intercepted a clearing attempt and chipped the puck forward to start a three-on-two break. Barbera collected the carom and slid a quick pass back to Devaney, who fired a shot inside the far post.
"I think we caught them in a line change," Devaney explained. "We came down on a three-on-two rush. I got a drop pass with a kid stepping up on me. I tried to shoot it to get it on net, didn't want it to get blocked and it ended up going in. Obviously a huge goal with about three minutes left in the game."
The Rockets first goal came just 38 seconds into the second period, when Barbera got position in front of the Wilmington goal and tipped home a shot from the point by sophomore defenseman Mike Seibold to tie the game.
"They are one of the best teams I've seen this year, including all the parochial schools, et cetera," Doherty said in praise of Wilmington. "I think they've got as good a forward [in Cam Owens] as there is in the state, bar none. He's right there with the best of them. We knew coming in, with the event that was planned here, it was going to be an interesting environment. Thank goodness it went our way. It could have gone either way truthfully. Both goalies are very good. I'm grateful it broke our way in the long run."
A LOT ON THE LINE
With both teams on the Super 8 watch list, it added a heightened level of excitement to the proceedings. For Reading, their status was likely secure beforehand and certainly must be cemented now. The goal for the Rockets will be to finish strong in the season finale against Arlington, and look to improve where they will end up seeded in the tournament field.
"We always look forward to playing in it," Doherty said. "I would like to think we'll be nominated. I try to stay as humble as I can about things but my goodness, I think we've shown this year that we're one of the better teams in the state."
Added Devaney, "I think we've proved it so far. Every team goes through a couple slumps here and there but then again, our last loss was December 29th at BC High and it was only a 2-0 game that could have gone either way. I think we're up there with every other team that's ranked high so I think we deserve it."
Wilmington's dream of joining the field as a Division 2 squad most likely came to an end with the loss. The reigning Div. 2 state champions figure they needed to win out to even have a chance of being considered for a nomination, much less inclusion in the field.
"Obviously it's an honor to be mentioned with them and all that but we really would have to win out," admitted Wildcats coach Steve Scanlon. "We would have had to beat these guys to even be really considered and for a division two team, it's a lot. It's a testament to our guys, they've played really good over the last couple of years so to even get mentioned with them is pretty good."
PLAYING FOR A CAUSE
Wilmington dedicated the game to longtime team bus driver, Judy Tipton Lee, who was diagnosed with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), otherwise known as Lou Gehrig's Diease, in Oct. 2011. The teams wore special jerseys with a ribbon and the words 'Judy's Wildcats' emblazoned on the front, and every player wore Lee's name on their backs, while fans wore similar tshirts.
The Wildcats got off to a good start as Brendan McDonough took a backhanded pass from Cam Owens and buried his shot from the lower, left wing circle at 4:45 of the first period.
Goalie Drew Foley was also stellar, turning aside 27 shots and keeping his team in the game.
"Especially early, he was unbelievable," said Scanlon in praise of Foley. "He held us in it. He's been pretty much our MVP. He holds you in the games, the kids are comfortable playing in front of him and they play with a lot of confidence. He's quite a goalie."
A bounce or two the other way and this game could have played out differently. Midway through the third period with the game still tied, a backhander by Steve DeFuria went between the pads of Reading goalie Evan Morelli (20 saves) and trickled through to the goal line. Morelli dove on it quickly, but it was hard to tell whether or not the puck had crossed the line first. The official was stationed right along the red line and immediately waved it off.
Then, with 31 seconds left in the game, Wilmington drew a crucial icing call that gave them a faceoff to Morelli's right with an extra skater as Foley headed to the bench. Reading's Ryan Thomson won the draw and defenseman Matt McLelland quickly skated off the right wing and sent a shot the length of the ice for an empty-netter.
"When do you see the draw go right to the guy and he sends it up the river?" Scanlon mused afterward with a smile. "We would have liked to get something going there with the extra guy. It is a game of inches, right? Some days they go with you, some days they don't. It was a good game, good experience for my kids."