FITCHBURG, Mass. _ During his post game interview Monday night, Wachusett Regional hockey coach Matt Lane repeatedly mentioned the words perseverance and luck in his attempt to describe the Mountaineers’ heart-stopping 3-2 shootout victory over Groton-Dunstable in the Central Mass. Division 3 championship played at the Wallace Civic Center.
You would be hard pressed to find another hockey game that held as much drama as this one entailed.
Groton-Dunstable, the No. 1 seed in the tournament, had played like world beaters all season long running through the regular season with reckless abandon. Having captured the Division 3A state crown a year ago, the Crusaders were moved up to Division 3 status at the start of this season and appeared primed for another state title.
The Mountaineers, a No. 2 seed, didn’t have the overall depth and talent that Groton-Dunstable did. However on any given night you never know what might happen. Monday night just happened to be one of those nights.
Hanging with the Crusaders through 45 minutes of regulation time plus an additional 12 minutes of overtime, this contest still remained deadlocked at 2-2. MIAA rules state if nothing is settled at that point, a shootout will ensue. In the shootout, Groton-Dunstable went first. Senior forward CJ Kenny, who gave his team a brief 1-0 lead back in the first period, scored on his chance beating Mountaineer goaltender Jake Strasser stick side. Wachusett’s first attempt was stopped by Crusader junior goalie Jason Robes. Adam Kmetz, who briefly gave the Crusaders a 2-1 lead just 17 seconds into the second period, went next for Groton-Dunstable but was stoned by Strasser.
Having scored both of his team’s goals in regulation, Wachusett junior forward Marc Happy was given the next opportunity and made it count after his shot bounced off of Robes’ stick, fluttering over his head and into the back of net to make it 1-1. After neither team scored on their next chance, Mountaineer sophomore Brian Boulette skated in and beat Robes with a backhander putting his club ahead. Everything now fell squarely on the shoulders of Josh Rabbit. A goal would extend the shootout but a stop would finish the Crusaders season. Rabbit skated in and tried to go five-hole on Strasser, but the junior got the pads closed just in time to seal the puck sparking a wild and euphoric celebration on the ice by Mountaineer players and coaches.
Wachusett (17-3-2) will face Westfield (16-2-2) in the state semifinal to be played here on Thursday beginning at 7:40 p.m. The Mountaineers and Bombers met twice during the regular season, splitting the series.
“Perseverance and a little bit of luck,” said Lane, his team claiming its first Central Mass. championship after losing to Hudson the previous two years in the title game. “Groton-Dunstable outplayed us for most of this game. They are an excellent hockey team. People don’t give them as much credit as they deserve. But somehow, someway we managed to pull this one out of the hat tonight.”
The Crusaders (16-2-4) out-shot the Mountaineers by almost a 2-1 ratio (47-32). Had it not been for the brilliant play of Strasser, who started the season as a back up, the final outcome could have been much different. Strasser was the hard-luck loser in net during last year‘s overtime loss to Hudson in Central Mass. title tilt so playing in a pressure-packed situation was nothing new to him.
“I love the playoffs,” said Strasser, who put forth a 45 save effort, making several spectacular stops along the way. “The playoffs is when I do my best. I feel I play better when I’m under pressure.”
Kenny’s goal, coming at 3:21 of the opening period put the Crusaders in front 1-0. Groton-Dunstable stayed relentless in its attack once they moved the puck inside Wachusett territory. But time and time again, Strasser continued to marvel between the pipes, keeping it a one-goal game. At 6:25 of the period however, Happy tied matters with a blast from the right corner which beat Robes (30 saves) and make 1-1.
Things stayed that way until the early seconds of the second period when Kmetz let go a shot from the low left slot that caught Strasser out of position. Seven minutes later, Happy answered again. Taking a nice centering feed from teammate Colin Bennie, Happy slipped a quick wrist shot by Robes knotting things up at 2-2.
“It doesn’t matter how we do it as long as we get the job done,” said Happy. “Groton is a big, physical team and kept knocking us around but we kept coming back. I was determined not to lose this game three years in a row and tonight we finally got it done.”
A scoreless third paved the way to overtime in which Groton-Dunstable dominated the Mountaineers, who were beginning to show signs of fatigue. In the extra stanza, the Crusaders put up 11 shots to Wachusett’s five but still nothing was settled until the shootout.
“I’m proud of every kid in this program,” said disappointed Groton-Dunstable coach Phil Rowley. “I wish things had come out differently than it did. When it comes right down to it, this was only a hockey game. There are a lot of things more tragic than losing a hockey game. Both teams played well and it was a fun game. We had our chances and didn’t hold anything back but I wish Wachusett well going forward.”