BUZZARDS BAY, Mass. – In the last game of the league campaign, Franklin had a chance to clinch the Kelley-Rex division title with a win against North Attleboro, but the Rocketeers pulled out the victory leaving the Panthers worried that not only would the league title be lost, but also its playoff hopes.
A few hours later, thanks to results at other rinks, Franklin had its title in hand and a place in the state tournament.
Fast forward a little more than a month and the Panthers, who entered the playoffs as the lowest seed in Div. 1 South and with a below .500 record, took on top seed Duxbury in Sunday evening’s sectional final with a chance to return to the TD Garden.
Unfortunately for Franklin (12-10-4), its improbable tournament run ended at Gallo Arena with a 3-0 loss to the Dragons.
“We left the rink saying we’re not going and then an hour later alright we have second place and then an hour and 15 minutes later we have first place,” said Franklin coach Chris Spillane about the turnaround that the Panthers experienced that night against North. “It was crazy. We made the most of it.”
The top seed got off to a great start, scoring within the opening two minutes and setting the tone with its speed and physicality. Todd Jones put the Panthers on the back foot right away when he split a pair of defensemen and then flicked a shot over the shoulder of Franklin goalie Ray Ivers.
Spillane said, “They were good. They came out fast, they were physical, we just couldn’t match their energy. We had six kids who couldn’t practice the last five days with the bug. It’s part of hockey and you have to fight through it, but it was obvious tonight that we didn’t have our legs to keep up with a team like that.”
Ivers was forced to make a couple of stops from close-range just a couple minutes after the opening goal, while the Panthers tried to get a foothold in the game. Franklin’s first good scoring chance came with seven minutes left in the first after Joey Lizotte stole an outlet pass and set up Shane McCaffrey in the slot but his shot was saved by Steve Pisani.
Brendan Sicchio followed up a rebound off a shot from outside the blue line and nearly stuffed it past Pisani. Sicchio then set up C.J. Spillane for a backhand chance in front that was stopped. Colin Hedvig nearly got the Panthers on the board at the end of the first when he dangled past a defender and forced a save.
Franklin carried that momentum into the second period and had a good start with three quick shots, but then Duxbury struck again. Ben Cheney fired an inch-perfect stretch pass to Tanner Smith and he sniped the top corner to make it 2-0.
“That’s a credit to that team because every time they had an opportunity to score, they scored,” Spillane remarked. “We were outshooting them…but they’ve got some snipers.”
Hedvig gloved an attempted clearance and forced a blocker save and Cam Cassella forced a kick save from the left-wing circle after he stole a pass at the blue line. Tom Tasker had a shot from the point redirected in front by Dan Magazu, but it went off Pisani’s mask and stayed out.
In the final minute of the period, Kyle Hedvig got a good look right in front but Pisani was able to smother. The Panthers turned over the puck off the rebound and almost instantly Duxbury was back on the attack. James Lawlor got loose on the quick break out and he beat Ivers (21 saves) to make it 3-0. It was a deflating goal for the Panthers to give up.
“When you playing at not-100 percent, the safe play is to chip it out and that’s what we were doing,” said Spillane. “We didn’t carry the puck, we didn’t make plays or passes, it was all chip, chip, chip, chip and we just didn’t have it.”
Franklin came out of the locker room for the third period with the intent of putting together a comeback, but the lack of healthy bodies took its toll and the Panthers never got going. Kyle Hedvig had a decent chance with a tip in front but Pisani got his blocker to it. Ivers made a good stop after Zack Stewart weaved through the defense.
The Dragons neutralized the Panthers in the third, limiting them to only six shots, and closed out the game to book its place in next weekend’s state championship.
“I thought we were going to get one early in the third and it might change the energy on the bench, give them something to fight for, but it just didn’t happen,” said Spillane.
He added, “It was a good ride. They showed a lot of heart and character. We knew what we had in the locker room. Our record may not have been indicative of that, but we knew we played some good hockey teams and we competed and we knew that we could run with anyone.”