BOSTON, Mass. – Heading into the third period down by a single goal to defending Div. 2 state champion Notre Dame Academy (Hingham), the Canton girls’ hockey team was probably thinking that it had the Cougars right where it wanted them.
The Bulldogs (14-5-6), who entered the playoffs as the No. 14 seed, had shown a propensity for coming from behind to pull out wins during an improbable tournament run that had brought Canton all the way to the TD Garden for its first state title game appearance since 2006. Despite being behind by a goal, the Bulldogs remained confident.
“It was only 1-0 and we have come back from 1-0 games so many times,” said senior captain Rebecca Eckler. “We can get a goal in 30 seconds. We just knew that we can come back, we can do this, never give up and even with a minute left, we just cannot give up.”
Canton did come back and tied the game early in the third period. Andrea McNeil popped in a backhander on the rebound and fired up the large contingent of fans that made the trip up 93 for the early morning game.
However, the Cougars (23-0-1) responded just nine seconds later to regain the lead and freshman Katherine Pyne caught fire, scoring all four of NDA’s goals in the third period, while classmate Skyler Irving added a goal and three assists. The Cougars skated to a 5-2 victory and back-to-back state titles, despite a roster that has zero seniors.
“To see them tie the game, we could have crumbled,” said NDA coach Jean-Yves Roy, “and things could have gone south for us but I think it showed a lot of character and bounced back very next shift and we just kept rolling from there.”
Defense has been the strength of the Bulldogs all season. Sunday’s final was only the second time this year that Canton allowed an opponent to score more than two goals in a game and the first time since Barnstable scored four all the way back in December. That defense was put to the test against the high-scoring Cougars.
Junior goalie Colleen Kelleher stood tall to make an early save on a scoring opportunity for Emma Duffey, but six minutes into the game Irving reacted first to a rebound and was able to finish for a 1-0 lead. Pyne also had Kelleher beat two minutes later only to see her shot come back off the crossbar.
Kelleher made nine saves in the first and the Bulldogs grew into the game as the opening period wore on. Sophomores Katie Trerice and Leah McClellan, senior Molly McLaughlin, and freshman Alexa Maffeo all making solid plays to limit the Cougars to shots from the edges and the forwards starting the defensive effort with an aggressive forecheck.
“We thought we had a pretty good grasp on what they wanted to do and it kind of in a way fit into what we do anyways,” said Canton coach Dennis Aldrich. “A couple times they almost stuttered with the puck because we were taking away their wide wings and stuff like that.”
Sophomore Lauren Fitzpatrick had Canton’s best chance of the first period with a solo rush up the right side and a shot from the circle that was blocked aside.
Canton took control in the second period and started to create scoring chances by forcing turnovers in the neutral zone. McNeil had a good chance just a minute into the second but her rush to the net was blocked at the last second. Five minutes later, Trerice had a shot through traffic batted away and Ava Bevilacqua took the rebound the length of the ice and forced Kelleher into a save.
Kendra Farrelly nearly created the tying goal with seven minutes left in the second but her initial rush was tipped away by NDA goalie Erin Murray in the crease and Farrelly’s deflected follow-up was well saved by Murray. Three minutes later, Farrelly again created an opening down the left but her shot through the crease could not be tapped in at the back post by Fitzpatrick.
“These girls’ heads never drop,” said Aldrich. “There’s no panic. Our mantra all along has been attitude and focus and it’s not if it’s going to happen but when and how.”
Just two minutes into the third period, Canton’s seemingly stole the momentum for the game with the tying goal. McNeil pounced on a rebound off a shot by Fitzpatrick and planted it top shelf.
Aldrich said, “When we tied, I don’t think the girls were surprised, I certainly wasn’t surprised. I’ve seen them do it over and over again.”
NDA won the ensuing face-off and the puck slid all the way down into the Canton zone. Pyne showed off her speed to react first to the loose puck and she buried the chance for a 2-1 lead. The game was tied for only nine seconds.
“It was just one of those squirter pucks,” said Aldrich. “There’s no one at fault, no one to blame, just one of those squirters that happen. When you’ve got someone like the Pyne girl swarming around like a shark, she smells the blood and she can finish.”
Pyne added a second goal a little more than a minute later, but again Canton showed the resiliency to fight back. Fitzpatrick turned in the high slot and flung a shot at goal that took a funny bounce and ended up in the back of the net.
NDA responded quickly to regain the two-goal advantage. Pyne’s wraparound effort slid under the pads of Kelleher, who appeared to have it covered until she was bumped but the goal was given. With 2:26 left, Pyne added her fourth and the team’s fifth to seal the title.
Despite the disappointment of losing Sunday’s final, Rebecca Eckler reflected on what it meant just to get to that round. She said, “The journey here was just as awesome as it was being here. We never gave up in any games and all our hard work paying off and to come here…it was just awesome. I’m so proud of everyone and we did our best.”
Aldrich noted that three years ago, the Bulldogs won just three games. He praised the leadership of the seniors for getting the program to this point. “These guys, especially Rebecca and Kristen (Eckler) being our leaders, kept everyone focused on what we wanted and needed to do as a program. We got consistently better each game,” he said.
Aldrich added, “I coached boys’ hockey for 13 years and these guys, no offense to the boys, have taught me more in five…I’m just very, very grateful and proud to go on a run like this.”
When asked what it was like to skate on the TD Garden ice, Kristen Eckler said, “When we first stepped onto it, I couldn’t wait for that moment. I’ve been thinking about it all week, you step out there and you see your town, you see your parents, you see your family, it’s just awesome to have this experience.”
She joked, “If you told me a month and a half ago that I’d be playing at the Boston Garden, I would probably slap you or something because I wouldn’t believe it…It was just so much heart, soul, and hard work, blood, sweat and tears…that’s just our team.”