By Brian Hines, HockomockSports.com Contributor
CANTON, Mass. – After a mid-April matchup against the Pembroke Titans, the Canton Bulldogs knew their Division 2 South playoff matchup on Tuesday was not going to be easy.
“We played Pembroke earlier in the season and beat them 8-6,” said Canton head coach Bill Bendell. “We had some guys missing but they were good and we knew they were going to get better and they have a great coach. We knew it was going to be a dogfight when we looked at the seeding, we were like ‘Ah man, this is not going to be easy,’ there were some other matchups we would’ve preferred.”
The result for the Bulldogs on Tuesday was eerily similar to the first go around, as they pulled out an 8-7 victory in a hard-fought matchup.
The scoring came fast for Canton, as senior captain Charlie O’Connor took the opening faceoff and scored himself to give the Bulldogs a lead just eight seconds into the game.
“I wanted to set the tone for our team, make sure we had the momentum going our way,” O’Connor said. “I did what I could, ran down, they didn’t play me on the fast break and just took it to the net, shot and it went in.”
That wasn’t O’Connor’s only big play of the afternoon. After a strong defensive play by Gabe Galeotos and a clear by Brendan Albert with under a minute to go in the first half, Canton used a timeout with 29 seconds left to try and draw something up.
After the original shot was turned away, the ball laid unattended in the crease where O’Connor was able to play clean-up crew, scooping it into the net with one second remaining.
“The play right before halftime, we drew a couple things up, if they do this we’ll do this and we executed perfectly but they played really good defense, so they took away what we were trying to run,” Bendell. “Then our captain Charlie O’Connor knocked that ball in with one second left and that’s the game, that’s the game winner if you look at it that way.”
“I just brought out my inner hockey instincts almost,” said O’Connor. “Coach always says play to the whistle if the ball is on the goal line then poke it in…I poked it in and luckily, I kept my feet outside of the crease.”
The last-second goal gave the Bulldogs a 4-2 lead heading to halftime, forcing Pembroke to have to adjust during the break, which is exactly what they did.
The adjustments started with faceoff specialist Aidan Geary, who won eight draws in the second half to help bring the Titans get back into the game.
“[Geary] was really good and they made some adjustments,” Bendell said. “[Charlie] won the first one and scored and set the tone, that was huge, but after that, they really tightened that up and made it a battle. It was tough to get possessions.”
With those extra possessions, the Pembroke offense wasted little time getting back into the game.
After Mike Shaw (two goals, one assist) gave Canton a 5-2 lead, Pembroke’s Ryan Mulhern (two goals) scored in a five on five situation to pull the Titans back within two.
Canton then seemed destined to pull away yet again after a strong save from goalie Jack Connolly and a two-man advantage. However, the two-man advantage didn’t affect the Titans as Patrick Mulhern (three goals, one assist) scored with just over four minutes left in the third quarter.
The Titans then used their own man advantage with a Colin Newton goal and Michael Hendriksen added an even-strength goal just one minute later to cap a 4-0 run, which gave Pembroke their first lead of the game.
Canton then quickly answered when Kevin Albert (two goals, one assist) snuck one in just seconds after the faceoff to tie the game at 6-6 to end the third.
To start the fourth, Albert cashed in on another opportunity with 10 minutes remaining, only to have Patrick Mulhern tie the game just two minutes later. But with just over seven minutes remaining, a shot directed right to Albert who found Griffin Roach in front for what was the eventual game-winning goal.
“We’ve lost some one-goal games with these seniors so they’ve seen that,” Bendell said. “We were at D-Y a couple years ago and had them, then they beat us by a goal. We had Sandwich, it was tied late and they scored with under a minute left to beat us, so we survived and advanced just like they survived against us and advanced.”
Over the last seven minutes, the score remained 8-7 in large part due to Connolly in net. Connolly made four big saves in final minutes of regulation, including one with two seconds left that sealed the victory for the Bulldogs.
“He’s a beast, that was huge,” Bendell said. “The defense at the end of the game was clutch. You know the stick gets a little tight in those situations for some guys, but these guys thrive on that stuff. Jack doesn’t get discouraged, he might have a moment where he puts his head down for one brief moment but he’s still a sophomore, he’s a confident enough kid who plays varsity hockey, varsity football and varsity lacrosse so this is nothing new to him. He loves the spotlight and that was huge, that was clutch.”
Canton boys lacrosse (10-7) will now travel to face the No. 3 seed Sandwich on Thursday at 5:00 P.M.
“We just said to these guys, the first win of the playoffs is the hardest,” Bendell said. “We’ve done that trip before, it’s not an easy trip and they’re a good team. But now you’re playing house money, you got past the first round now we’re the lower seed technically so now the pressures on them to beat us and we’re a tough team, so we’ll see.”