GROTON, Mass. -- You had to wonder if there was anyone out there who could give the Shrewsbury Colonials a legitimate challenge. So far, that had not come to fruition as No. 22 Shrewsbury was beating up clubs by an average of four goals.
Some believed it would come Wednesday night against Groton-Dunstable. The Crusaders, a team that prides itself on tough, physical play, have never been known to back down against anyone. Perhaps, with so many lop-sided victories to their credit this season, the Colonials were finally going to face an opponent worthy enough to keep them on their toes the entire 45 minutes.
G-D not only gave Shrewsbury a run for its money, it went one step better. The Crusaders rallied back from a one-goal deficit, by scoring a pair of unanswered markers in the closing period, and handed the Colonials a stunning 2-1 defeat at Frank "Junie'' O'Brien Rink on the campus of the Groton School.
Against a team that came in averaging just about eight goals per game, G-D executed the perfect defensive strategy and took away Shrewsbury's best intangible — speed.
The Crusaders stationed players around the neutral zone, clogging up the Colonials' skating lanes. They also created chaos once the Colonials did move puck across the red line, blocking shots in front and tying up the forwards as to not allowing them to generate any open space to move in.
"We tried to slow their defense down so they couldn't release the puck as fast," second-year Crusaders head coach Phil Rowley said. "I had a guy sitting up high trying to block all of that and we had another guy coming back to pick up their open wing.
“We played them straight up. We feel we can go one-to-one on anybody. We may not always win the battle but we're not going to lose the battle either. A lot of our battles tonight I felt we did a really nice job. I think the kids are now starting to figure it out.”
G-D improves to 5-3-0 while the Colonials suffer their first loss of the season, dropping to 7-1-0.
When the two clubs met two weeks ago, Shrewsbury tallied three goals in the third period to come away victorious, 4-2.
Obviously that loss remained stuck inside the Crusaders' heads.
To a player, there was a belief that if they could keep things close going into the final period, they would have a chance.
Trailing 1-0 after two periods, G-D realized it had that chance. With the defense poking and checking Shrewsbury off its projected lanes, senior goaltender Jason Robes (23 saves) was doing a yeoman-like job holding down the fort between the pipes.
Just 1:08 into the third period, the Crusaders knotted things at 1-1. After G-D won the draw inside the right face off circle, Eric Niemoller pushed a pass over to J.J. Tardif, standing alone just in front Shrewsbury goalie Matt Andrews (10 saves). Tardif flipped a shot over Andrews' right shoulder and into the back of the net.
Playing with some newfound enthusiasm, the Crusaders continued to dictate the tempo over the next several minutes. They were beating the Colonials to loose pucks and forcing them to control the puck along the boards instead of the middle of the ice.
Midway through the period, G-D grabbed the lead for good.
Senior Connor Maguire had control of the puck just inside the blue line. But the defensman lost his footing and fell down. However, with no Shrewsbury player within 10 feet of him, Maguire was able to stand up and rifle a shot through traffic and between Andrews' leg pads at 7:28.
"I kind of lost my footing a little bit but was still able to keep the puck inside the zone," Maguire said. "I saw a wide-open lane that doesn't come up all that much. I took a slap shot and it went in. I think their goalie might've thought the puck went outside the zone and looked a bit unprepared as he was standing upright. Luckily my shot was quick enough to get in. I kept it low and it ended up going 5-hole."
For the remainder of the period, G-D's strategy was to play not to lose. The Crusaders were doing everything possible to disrupt any Shrewsbury player with the puck on his stick. The Colonials' best opportunity to tie the game came with just under two minutes remaining. Defenseman Cole Vincequere ripped a howitzer just inside the blue line that sailed through traffic. But somehow Robes was able to pick it up, snagging it with his catching glove. All Vincequere could do at that point was drop to one knee in utter disbelief.
"Our defense did a great job blocking shots in front of me," Robes said. "I just tried to see the puck as well as I could, try to be ready and fortunately I was. This is a huge team win for us."
Following a scoreless first period, in which Shrewsbury had severe difficulty trying to get its offense kick-started, the scenario would continue for much of the middle frame as well. But at 11:51, the Colonials took advantage of a rare odd-man rush as Adam Twitchell, a sophomore forward, finished it off by burying a shot past Robes, putting his team on the board first.
Shrewsbury out-shot G-D 11-2 in the period yet only had the one goal to show for it. It seemed to be an early indication of things to come. Despite out-shooting their opponent by a 2-to-1 ratio, there was an eerie feeling hovering around the Shrewsbury bench that this was not going to be their night.
"We knew we would be in for a war coming up here," Colonials head coach Steve Turnblom said. "We really hadn't had a lot of tough games like this and G-D played us tough tonight. Their goalie played great and kept them in it. They were able to hang around till the end and we weren't able to bury the puck when it counted. They shut down the middle of the ice on us and were forcing us to play around the perimeter.”
He continued, “A lot of teams have tried to do that against us but that team was successful in doing so against us. Sometimes when you are beating teams by a lot you end up taking certain things granted like winning face offs and tying up your man. We didn't do that and we certainly got a little refresher course tonight because of it."