FRANKLIN, Mass. – When you are struggling to get into a rhythm offensively and everyone is grabbing the stick a little tighter, it takes players grinding in the corners and making the effort to get to the front of the net to turn things around.
After watching Oliver Ames tie the game early in the third period of Wednesday night’s league opener at Pirelli Veterans Arena, Franklin needed a little inspiration to avoid extending its winless streak to six games (0-3-2 after opening the season with an exclusion win against Malden Catholic). Up stepped senior forward Joe Lizotte.
Despite being the only Panther in the offensive zone, Lizotte managed to hold possession in the corner against three OA defensemen. He squeezed the puck out to the right boards where it kicked to Tom Tasker, who sent a puck across the crease. The puck was deflected by C.J. Spillane, and several bodies in front of goal, to the far post and Zac Falvey popped up to knock the loose puck into the back of the net.
It was the spark that the Panthers needed. Franklin scored again three minutes later to seal a 4-2 victory and kick off its league title defense with a much-needed two points.
“He’s by himself and we get help off the bench and next thing you know it’s in the back of the net,” said Franklin coach Chris Spillane about the game-winner. “A dead play, with a little effort, turned into a positive play. It’s just hard work. He’s a good player and we love having him on our team.”
Franklin came out strong in the first period, holding a 9-3 edge in shots after the first, despite giving up a power play only 50 seconds into the game.
Sophomore Declan Lovett had a good look from the dot that he sent just wide and the puck bounced out to Cam Cassella at the point, who forced a save from OA goalie Owen Connor (26 saves). Lizotte forced a save from the left circle and then Spillane and Tasker put shots on goal only to be denied.
“He kept us in it,” OA coach Sean Bertoni said of his goaltender. “It was his best game of the year. We just didn’t take sticks out on those last two goals. He played excellent.”
OA’s best chance of the opening period came with just under six minutes left. Jake Gottwald slipped a pass into the slot where Ross Carroll put a shot on net only to have Panthers goalie Ryan Cameron (10 saves) kicked it aside. The hosts nearly took the lead with just seconds left in the first but Tasker’s shot came back off the post.
“Our forecheck non-existent to be honest,” Bertoni admitted. “The first period was one of our weakest of the year, which was kind of disappointing. They know if we don’t establish our forecheck, then we’re not going to win anything. We rely on our speed.”
The Tigers started the second on the power play and needed only 19 seconds to make it count. Following a Connor save, Brett Williams broke down the right side and was able to play the puck across the crease into defenseman Matt McCormack, who forced a save from Cameron, and Cullen Gallagher was on hand to tap in the rebound.
Unfortunately for the Tigers, Gallagher was injured not long after the goal and forced to leave the game, one of two OA forwards to get injured on Wednesday.
Lizotte had a decent chance at an instant response only for Connor to make the save and then the OA goalie kept out Kyle Hedvig on a tip of a Cassella slap shot. Brendan Sicchio came close too with a shot off the post.
Finally, with 7:33 left in the second, Franklin’s pressure paid off. Lizotte got behind the OA defense in the left circle and cut across goal onto his backhand before sliding it under Connor.
Just seconds after Williams and Carroll had chances on the other end, the Panthers took their first lead of the night. Again it was Lizotte that created the opportunity by riding a challenge and keeping hold of the puck. It skipped behind the net to Matt Holmes, who flung a pass out to the point where Cassella fired a wrister through traffic and into the top corner.
“We worked on chipping the puck into space and every time you have No. 11 (Lizotte) on the ice you’re going to win those races and we had a couple of other kids pick up pucks too,” said Spillane. “It’s not the prettiest brand of hockey but it’s effective.”
Franklin almost doubled the lead in the third when Falvey made it three posts for the Panthers, but OA answered back to tie it. Off a face-off in the attacking zone, Gottwald had a chance from the slot that Cameron saved, but the rebound was knocked out of mid-air by Colin Bourne and slammed into the back of the net.
Bertoni said, “Their energy was there to start the period, their effort was there, and they didn’t get down on themselves when two guys went down and that’s all you can ask for.”
Williams almost gave the Tigers the lead but Cameron made a sprawling save. It was one of the few times that OA managed to get in behind the Franklin defensemen.
Spillane explained, “I thought we did very well defensively with our gap control, slowing them down as they came in the zone and not giving them space to move around.”
With 8:49 left, after Lizotte’s effort in the corner, Falvey put Franklin in the lead. Three minutes later, the Panthers sealed the win. Dan Magazu threw a puck in front from the right boards and Shane McCaffery managed to squeeze the tip under Connor’s pads for a 4-2 lead.
“We have nine forwards and when you lose two of them it’s hard,” said Bertoni. “I threw a guy out there on the ice cold and they scored the goal to make it 3-2. That’s on me but it’s hard when you’re short-benched against a team with so much depth.”
Freshman Bryan Kearns had one more good chance for the Tigers but his shot was kicked out by Cameron and the Panthers got their first two points (for MIAA purposes) of the season.
Spillane said, “We just need to find an offensive flow. We had plenty of shots, we missed the net way too much, so we need to clean things up offensively.”