WEST SPRINGFIELD, Mass. -- Before the opening face off, you could see it in their eyes.
There was no look of concern or intimidation on the faces of Springfield Cathedral Panthers. None. Zero.
Going up against the hockey behemoth otherwise known as Malden Catholic in the championship game of its own tournament, No. 6 Cathedral entered with a strong feeling of determination and the belief that it belonged among the state’s elite programs.
On Thursday night, both were put on display repeatedly as the Panthers were sparked by three second-period goals en route to a convincing 5-2 victory over the top-ranked Lancers in front of a packed house at the Olympia Ice Center in the regular-season finale for both teams.
The contest could very well be a preview for a later meeting between the state powers in the upcoming Super 8 tournament.
"This is the best possible way to end our regular season," said Cathedral head coach Brian Foley, his team likely to move up in the Super 8 seedings. "It's a real confidence boost heading into the (Super 8) tournament. Our team this season is probably the strongest team we've had entering the postseason tournament. Our overall skill level is higher than in years past."
After surrendering a late first period goal to MC senior forward Tyler Sifferlen, the remainder of this tilt belonged to the Panthers (15-2-5). Looking for a way to even up this contest quickly, center Peter Crinella answered Cathedral's hopes after taking a drop pass from freshman Dan Petrick and firing a missile past Alex Reissis just 34 seconds into the middle frame to knot things at 1-1.
Cathedral was doing a solid job on the defensive side by taking the Lancers forwards off their projected paths and pushing them into the boards. This, in turn, allowed the forwards to create space inside the MC zone. Johnny Leonard put the Panthers ahead at 6:06 of the period. Taking a centering pass from Riley Prattson, the sophomore waited patiently for Reissis to commit downward before firing a shot over the junior's right shoulder.
Three minutes later, D.J. Petruzzelli, a junior, flew down the right side, cut through a pair of defensemen and lifted a shot past Reissis (14 saves), sending Cathedral into the second intermission on top 3-1.
"This is a game we always look forward to from the first day of the season," said Leonard, a UMass-Amherst commit. "We wanted to make a statement that we do belong with Malden Catholic. We have such a great program here and great coaches. We pushed each other all year for games like this one and the Super 8 moving forward. We are still a very young team (one senior) but I feel we've got something pretty special going on here this year. Hopefully we can take momentum of this win into the Super 8 and do something there."
Over the course of the first 30 minutes, MC was given several clean looks at the net. But the Lancers failed to capitalize on those opportunities due in large part to the strong, physical play of the Panthers defense along with the steady play between the pipes by goaltender Keith Petruzzelli. The freshman played brilliantly, stopping 26 of 28 attempts, including a 12 shot barrage in the closing period. In spite of the loss, it still should have no bearing on MC (16-4) being the consensus No. 1 seed going into the Super 8 once the pairings are announced on Saturday.
"I really liked the fact that we got punched in the face tonight," MC head coach John McLean said. "When you win games 11-0, 9-0 and 7-1 as we've done recently, the kids kind of get this mental thing where they can just show up and its automatically going to happen. Tonight was a good learning experience for us. We understand there are teams that can play with us and that's a good thing.
"Cathedral is a well-coached team and can really compete at a high level. Every time we play them it's always a good, tough game. We had a ton of chances tonight but I thought we tried to get a little to fancy with the puck. I thought Cathedral got in our face and didn't respect us. That's OK because why should they?"
Last year, the Lancers came into Cathedral Tournament a team in search of a direction.
After its two-game sweep in the event, there were many who believe that was the spring board MC needed in moving forward and capturing its third consecutive Super 8 crown. Now the Panthers are adhering to a similar premise hoping this triumph will catapult them through the tournament.
"Hopefully a game like this will have us come out stronger in the next game we play and not feel a team out," Foley said. "The last couple of years in the Super 8 we were just kind of feeling our way around. Enough of that now. It is time for us to take the game to our opponent. Hopefully this win will help prepare us mentally to do that."
Realizing MC was too good not to go down without a fight. Cathedral's objective entering the final period was to try and add to its total early on. The Panthers caught a huge break after Matt Filipe and John McLean were sent to the penalty box in succession, giving Cathedral a 5-on-3 advantage for 52 seconds. The Panthers didn't need all of that time to convert however. Leonard, standing just to the right of Reissis, found Crinella wide-open in the slot and the junior finished the play accordingly by slapping a one-timer past Reissis at 2:08 and push Cathedral's advantage to three goals.
With just over five minutes remaining, the Lancers were leaving everything out on the ice. They started becoming more-efficient at moving the puck through center ice while attacking the Cathedral zone at will. The Panthers, meanwhile, were just hoping to get through these last few minutes as they continuously tried to dump the puck away from their zone anyway they could. One time they couldn't. Defenseman Nick Rolli, standing inside the left circle, fired a point-blank laser past Petruzzelli at 9:05, narrowing the deficit to 4-2.
But time was not of the essence for the Lancers on this night. With Reissis pulled for the extra man, Leonard capped off this monumental evening by scoring an empty net goal from nearly the full-length of the ice in the final minute.