BROOKLINE, Mass. -- You had to believe there was something still left in the tank.
Trailing Canterbury School for more than two-and-a-half periods, Dexter School had numerous quality scoring chances throughout but late in the final period they only had one goal to show for it.
Meanwhile, the Saints had already netted a pair and their NEPSAC All-New England Team goaltender Christian Short was proving to be an unstoppable force as he continued to stymie Dexter on every shift.
With time winding down to a only a handful of minutes, Dexter knew it needed to do something quick or its prosperous season would come to an abrupt and disadvantageous end.
Enter Sam D’Antuono. The junior forward literally put Dexter on his back at a most opportune time. At 10:55 of the frame, the Hingham native re-directed a Liam Feeney blast from the left half wall to tie the game. Then, moments later, Dexter junior forward Ryan Donato had a chance to put his team in front after being awarded a penalty shot. But Short, who finished with 36 saves, stoned Donato’s 5-hole bid to keep things deadlocked.
The missed-opportunity did little to deflate Dexter however. With less than four minutes remaining, D’Antuono, the trailer man on a 3-on-2 break, grabbed a loose puck in front of the crease and flipped a shot over Short’s right shoulder putting Dexter ahead to stay 3-2 in the quarterfinal round of the NEPSAC Piatelli/Simmons Tournament inside a raucous Dexter Athletic Facility.
Top-seeded Dexter (21-5-2) moves on to Saturday’s semifinal against an opponent and a time to be determined. Dexter is looking to win its second postseason title in three years.
“I thought we played pretty well the whole game,” Dexter head coach Dan Donato said. “Our kids kept battling. There is a reason why their goalie is an all-star. I thought he was the difference for a long time in this game but fortunately we found a way to pull through late. The character my team showed by coming back the way they did was outstanding.”
After a relatively even first few minutes of the opening period, No. 8 Canterbury (13-15-2) began gaining control midway through the frame. The Saints do not have the kind of offensive weaponry that Dexter possesses. Nevertheless, they are a team that will take whatever is given to them. Canterbury jumped out to a 1-0 lead at 6:55 of the opening frame when C.J. Grinnell, a postgraduate from Burlington, knocked in a rebound off the pads of Pat Fraser after an initial shot came from J.D. Pogue.
Several minutes later, after the Saints were able to fend off a 5-on-3 and one-man power play, it took just mere seconds once the second penalty expired for Canterbury to add to its lead. A long lead pass from Grinnell to Lucas Habich resulted in the senior skating down the left side and beating Fraser (19 saves) with a hard wrist shot into the low right corner.
Dexter appeared a bit bewildered going into the first intermission, as a team that had run amuck over the Saints, 7-0, on Jan. 2.
“We were using our layers in the defensive zone,” Saints head coach Padraic McCarthy said. “Offensively we were able to get pucks deep. Overall, I felt we did two things well. The first was we covered each other in our layer defense and I thought our stick position tonight was awesome. Team defense for us was going to be the key for us and we knew Christian could make stops for us. We just wanted to make sure that we weren’t getting beat off walls and we tried to keep their shooters as far away from Christian as we could.
“Our goal was to get to the third period with a chance to win and we did that. Unfortunately they got those two goals late and that was that.”
The lack of offense displayed by Dexter late in the first period certainly proved to be a loud wakeup call for them coming out for the middle period. Dexter returned to the ice showing more tenacity and better puck movement up and down the ice.
Leading goal scorer Ryan Donato (another All-New England selection) would give Dexter the spark it coveted. The Harvard University commit worked his way between a pair of Saint defenders and beat Short glove-side with a backhand shot, his 35th of the season, to make it 2-1. Dexter continued to pepper Short in the frame with 19 shots but had to settle for just the one score as they still trailed after 36 minutes.
But perhaps the turning point in this contest came with under two minutes to go in the period. Canterbury senior forward Mark Bowen was left all alone just 10 feet in front of Fraser. His shot, destined for the upper right corner, was snatched by the 6-3 senior netminder to keep it a one-goal game. No doubt a score that late would have likely crippled Dexter’s comeback hopes.
“In the locker room before the third period we talked about getting pucks to the net and attacking the net,” said D’Antuono. “We all felt we needed to do a better job with that.”
During the early part of the closing period, Canterbury appeared cautious in its play. The Saints were trying to get though these final 18 minutes without making any mental mistakes or create easy opportunities for their opponents.
Things were heading in that direction until All-New England member Feeney was left alone along the boards and ripped a shot through traffic that found a piece of D’Antuono’s stick, knotting things at 2 apiece. Then, a short time later, D’Antuono secured the game-winner after being left unaccounted for in the slot.
“I don’t think there is a hotter goal scorer than Sam right not,” Dan Donato said. “I know he’s had 11 goals in his last six games. He led Massachusetts in scoring last year with 54 points. We moved him down to the third line early in the season and then we moved back up to the first line later and he has been on fire ever since.”