BILLERICA, Mass. – For more than an hour, it was a staring contest between Reading and St. Mary's in the second Division 1 North semifinal at the Chelmsford Forum.
St. Mary's blinked first.
After 32:48 of scoreless hockey, Reading's Sean Verrier wriggled free in the slot and roof a point-blank shot into the top corner of the goal to put the Rockets ahead. Jake Barbera would add another goal with just over a minute left to ice Reading's 2-0 win.
“It feels great [with] a lot talk about them being the best,” Verrier said. “Everyone saying we should have been knocked out in the first round. If we keep playing the way we do I say we'll keep going the way we're going.”
After an even first period the Rockets took over. Reading outshot the Spartans 27-9 over the final 30 minutes. The Rocket defense forced St. Mary's to the outside and minimized chances. Ian Lapham anchored the Reading defense posting a 15-save shutout.
“[The defense] did for the most part keep things out side,” Reading coach Mark Doherty said. “Ian was rock solid. I'm glad for him. He responded nicely tonight.
“I didn't think they had a ton of outstanding chances tonight, but he made it a lot more comforting. You could tell he was in a pretty good zone tonight.”
The Spartans offense, which features five players with seven or more goals, was unable to sync up. As the game progressed, and especially after Reading took the lead, St. Mary's pressed hard and stressed themselves into making mistakes.
St. Mary's coach Mark Lee chalked the performance up to a young team not knowing how to step into the moment.
“I think the grips on the sticks got a little tighter and everyone was pressing too hard,” Lee said. “That's not our normal flow. We go out and try to outwork the opponent. We just got away from our gameplan a bit. A lot of it was Reading; they're a well-coached team. We didn't have our A-game, but some of that had to do with Reading and some had to do with our inexperience. Doesn't take away from the great season we've had.”
BAILEY'S LAST RIDE: With 2.4 seconds remaining, and the game's result secure, everyone on the St. Mary's looked down the ice towards the final faceoff of the season. Senior goaltender Bailey MacBurnie looked up at the clock. His gaze hung there until the horn's blare had faded and the handshake lines had formed. It was the end to a sterling career.
MacBurnie, who keyed St. Mary's run to an undefeated season and the two-seed in the 2012 Super 8 tournament returned from a year at Brewster Academy to anchor another deep tournament run for the Spartans.
“He came back this year and anchored our team,” Lee said. “He kept us in every game. He's a vocal kid on and off the ice. He's meant the world to this team and the program this year.”
MacBurnie finished the season with a 1.74 goals against average and a .925 save percentage.
Against the Rockets, he turned aside 31 shots.
“I definitely owe it to all these coaches,” MacBurnie said. “They really made me into the player I am today, and I’ll take that wherever I go.
“I'm definitely happy I came back. It's been just an amazing experience. I'm just happy that all these young guys got a taste of it; it makes them hungry.”
The MacBurnie family though still has work to do for the Spartans. Bailey's younger brother Shawn, a junior, led St Mary's with 29 points this season.
“He's really transformed into a really great player,” Bailey said. “He's a golfer, but I think hockey's his new number one. I can't wait to see him next year.”
REBUILT AND REVIVED: Before the start of the season many wrote Reading off as facing a rebuilding year. After racking up a pedestrian 7-7-2 record through the end of January the Rockets flipped the proverbial switch and are 8-1-0 since.
Doherty said his team found the metaphorical “it” and have rolled since.
“We're a group of guys that can bring a lot to the table, and we didn't realize that in the beginning,” Barbera said. “As the year progressed we said we got a shot at this. We wanted to work at it, put in the time and effort at practice, and it's amazing how far we've come.”
Reading has outscored its opponents 39-12 since finding its mojo in its last nine game and have a date with league rival Wilmington on Monday night for the right to play for a state championship.
Reading beat Wilmington, 6-3, in the first game of the season back on Dec. 14.
Since the turn of the century the D1 North final has featured at least one team from the Middlesex League. This year's will be the fourth time, and third year in a row, that it will be an all-Middlesex League final.
“The league continues to have success, success, success, and we still have a ton of detractors out there,” Doherty said. “That's sort of a burr that's always in my side, and thank god we get to prove it again. I'm grateful to be in the finals against Wilmington. It's going to a tough game.”