FRANKLIN, Mass. – Former Franklin goalie Sean Bertoni (Class of 2002) made his first return to his alma mater as a head coach on Saturday night, leading Oliver Ames into Pirelli Veterans Arena with a chance to take control of the Kelley-Rex title race.
But it was current Panthers netminder Cam Benham that stole the headlines and the two points with a 40-save performance that helped Franklin claim a 4-1 victory and control of its own destiny as it seeks to clinch a sixth straight league championship.
“That’s the goaltender that we need every night,” said Franklin coach Chris Spillane. “We’re looking forward to Cam getting on a roll. He had a shutout the other night, played unbelievable for us tonight, made some really big saves, and kept us in the game.”
Benham needed to be ready right from the opening face-off because the Tigers came flying out of the gates with 18 shots in the opening period and used their speed to create host of great scoring chances.
Eric LeBlanc set up Cullen Gallagher in front just a couple minutes in only for the sophomore to fire wide. Five minutes into the game, Brett Williams found Korey Sweezey in front alone but Benham made a point-blank pad save to keep the game scoreless. Rory Madden got free for a shorthanded chance but again Benham was up to the challenge.
Franklin took advantage of those saves and of a four-minute major penalty to get the lead against the run of play. Tom Sicchio’s shot from the point was kicked aside by Zach Walsh (16 saves) but right to Matt Holmes and he knocked in the rebound.
“I knew they were going to [start quick] and they were all over us,” admitted Spillane. “We weathered the storm and we sort of had our opportunities and we found the back of the net.”
Right at the end of the first, Benham came through with a flurry of saves, batting aside five or six shots from the Tigers who were trying to head into the first intermission on even terms.
“The first period was probably our best period of the season,” said Bertoni. “I was saying to the coaches maybe if we were a little bit older because young guys in a big game, maybe they were a little tight on their stick.”
Franklin settled down after the break and started the second much stronger and finding ways to slow down the speedy Tigers.
Just a minute into the period, Adam Assad controlled the puck near his own blue line and took a hit to feed Sicchio pushing forward into the neutral zone. Sicchio drove into the attacking zone, dragged the puck past his defender and fired a shot into the bottom corner for a 2-0 lead.
“He has stick skills, which is nice because he can make those plays,” said Spillane of Sicchio. “He’s really the backbone of our defense right now.”
When asked if his team had been disheartened by dominating the first period but trailing, Bertoni responded, “I don’t think so because we’ve been there before. They were so excited to start the second period especially because of how we ended the first. We must have had four shots in that scramble and just couldn’t bury one.”
Gallagher had a chance from the slot to get one back for OA but fired over the bar and Williams set up LeBlanc in front for a tip towards goal that was blocked by Benham.
The Tigers had the final seven shots of the second but trailed by three goals entering the third period. Within the first minute, Franklin had extended the lead to 4-0. Jack McGrath passed the puck across the blue line to Sicchio, who sent the puck towards net. Luke Downie redirected the shot from the slot and inside the post.
When asked if the Panthers had made any adjustments to try and combat OA’s speed, Spillane replied, “We’ve played fast teams before, we knew what we were in for and we just needed to pick up our tempo. Against a team like that, you have to play fast and move the puck.”
The Tigers finally got on the board on a power play goal with 1:32 remaining. Benham made two saves but the second rebound popped out to Williams, who knocked it into an open net. OA got some energy to finish with another flurry, totaling 14 shots in the third period, but Benham stood tall again to ensure that the Tigers only got one on the board.
“They played hard, just some of the penalties…I told them when we play 5-on-5 that we can skate with anyone,” said Bertoni. “We generate offense when we’re 5-on-5.”
Bertoni had previously returned as an assistant coach with the Tigers during the 2013-14 season and watched then Tigers goalie Jimmy Tierney make 40-plus saves for the win. He is now 1-1 coming back to his alma mater (where his father Bill Bertoni and his uncle Bruce Bertoni, who is still an assistant coach for the Panthers, are both members of the Franklin Hockey Hall of Fame).
He was asked how it felt to be back here and on the visiting bench and, with the hint of a smile, Bertoni said, “It felt good, it felt good…Man…I wanted to steal this one.”
Franklin (9-4-0, 4-1-0) has jumped to the top of the league standings at the midway point of the league campaign. Next up for the Panthers is King Philip at Pirelli on Wednesday, while Oliver Ames (7-4-1, 3-2-1) will travel to Foxboro.
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