WORCESTER, Mass. -- St. John's (Shrewsbury) was able to weather the storm on two fronts this evening.
First, the Pioneers had to trudge their way through the winter conditions to make it to the Holy Cross Hart Center. Secondly, they managed to withstand offensive-laden Springfield Cathedral by rallying from a two-goal third period deficit to secure a 3-3 tie in a Catholic West Conference showdown.
For St. John's (0-0-1) the deadlock felt more like a victory. The same, however, could not be said for the Panthers (1-0-1) whose mental breakdowns over the final frame allowed the Pioneers to crawl back.
"You go into the third period with a two-goal lead you expect to hold on to it," said Cathedral coach Brian Foley. "St. John's played hard and played with a lot of energy. I know it was their first game and for them it was going to be an exciting night."
The Pioneers comeback began early in the third. Just 1:12 in, junior forward Garrett Lehane let go of a shot from the right circle which sailed past the catching glove of Panthers goaltender John Liquori (22 saves). Four minutes later, with Cathedral's Bryce Peritz in the penalty box for a tripping violation, senior Kevin Connelly snuck a shot past Liquori to knot this tilt. For the remainder of the period, the Panthers played back on their heels. A game misconduct penalty to Zac Prattson certainly didn't help matters, gaving the Pioneers a five-minute power play to work with. To Cathedral's credit, it succeeded on the penalty kill which, in turn, also negated its offensive punch in a quest for the go-ahead score.
For a team that finished 7-11-4 a year ago, St. John's, under the direction of first-year head coach Mike Mead, sustained a belief that things will be much different this season.
"The kids really played well and were able to bounce back," said Mead, who took over for longtime coach Brian Murphy. "It was certainly a good start to the season. We needed to be physical with them and I think our senior defensemen really stepped up and played well for us. It was a good comeback. The kids didn't quit so you take that and move forward. For us it's one shift and one period at a time. We want to build confidence with each period."
The Panthers held a 1-0 lead after the first 15 minutes thanks to Prattson's hard wrist shot past Pioneers netminder Mario Pizzeri (29 saves). Cathedral probably could have scored a couple more times in the frame, out-shooting St. John's 14-6, but Pizzeri, who was sidelined for part of last season due to a groin injury, stood tall.
St. John's physicality was notice immediately, as they were bumping any Panther with the puck on his stick. Midway through the middle period, Cathedral went up by a pair. On the strength of the power play, junior forward Peter Crinella poked in a Riley Prattson pass just in front of Pizzeri. But less than 30 seconds later, Pioneers' top defenseman Bryan Nelson blasted a shot that Liquori initially stopped but somehow the puck trickled through the senior pads across the goal line to make it 2-1.
"We wanted to come out and send a message that we want to be respected this year," said Nelson. "Last year was a letdown season. We knew we were a bigger team compared to them and we knew they were young. Our plan was to bang them around as much as we could tonight and I felt we did that."
With St. John's slowly seizing momentum, Crinella, temporarily, put a halt to it during the final minute of the period by tallying his second score of the night. The Holy Cross commit gained control of puck from behind the Pioneer goal and cycled out front before launching a hard wrist shot through traffic that Pizzeri never saw, giving the Panthers a 3-1 edge.
A team with a flurry of offense, it appeared as though Cathedral was in total control. But the ever-presence of the St. John's fore check forced the Panthers into losing their composure as well as the puck. Both of which allowed the Pioneers to earn the tie.
"Cathedral is a great team," Mead said. "They're a Super 8 team, so to come back and tie a Super 8 team in your own building in our first game and as a new coach is a good sign. I'm glad it's over.
“Now it gets easier from here, you hope."