BOSTON, Mass. – It was a frustrating first 28 minutes for Canton (22-4) in Saturday’s Div. 2 state title game at the TD Garden. The Bulldogs had more than 20 shots on target, including some gilt-edged scoring opportunities, saw pucks hit the side-netting, bounce up on top of the net, shots go over the bar or just wide, and watched Hopkinton goalie Jack Lang come through with several huge saves.
There were moments when Canton could have been forgiven for thinking, it’s just not our night. Head coach Brian Shuman admitted that he was starting to get concerned as the clock ticked on without his team finding the back of the net.
“I was the first person to overreact on the bench when we missed the net,” Shuman said after the game. “Credit to our players, they stayed calm, cool, and collected and didn’t take on the persona of their coach, which was a good thing.”
Shuman shouldn’t have worried. For the second game in a row, the Bulldogs rallied from a goal down, showing the resilience of state champions. With two goals in a little over a minute at the end of the second period and a pair of goals from seniors in the final three minutes of the game, Canton skated away with a 4-1 victory and its third state title in the past five seasons.
“Seeing everyone out there, before we were like we’re not going to let what happened last year happen again and we came together, just had a quick talk,” said senior forward AJ Thomas. “After they scored the first one, we were down a little but we weren’t going to let it go. We came together in the locker room and came out in the second and put it to them. I’m happy to win it for everyone back home.”
Shuman added, “We’ve been in close games all year long. We’re just used to playing in tight games and credit to our guys, they’re saying the same things they were in the last round, ‘We’re fine, stay with it, we’re fine,’ and that’s not coming from the coaches. That’s coming from them.”
Canton was the favorite coming into the final. The No. 8 seed Hillers were playing in only their second state title game (and first in D2), while the Bulldogs are the perennial powers who have reached the final for four straight years (excluding the 2021 season that had no tournament).
It was the underdogs that would take the early advantage. A slap shot from Vasi Zolotarev hit a couple bodies in front of Canton goalie Colin Davis (14 saves). The puck landed at the skates of Hopkinton star Pavit Mehra and he rifled it past the goalie from close range to put the Hillers in front. It was his 40th goal of the season and fifth in the last two rounds.
A few minutes later, the Hillers nearly made it two. Catching Canton in a change, Ryan Teitel got free in the left wing circle and tested Davis, who was able to stay tall and make the save.
Canton grew into the game. Thomas forced Lang into a save from the left wing, Jack Digirolamo weaved through the Hopkinton defense and put a backhand shot on target, James Young got a shot on net from the point, Jeffrey Chaput teed up Thomas for a chance in the slot that went high and wide, then set up Brendan Tourgee in almost the same spot for another shot off target.
The Bulldogs outshot Hopkinton 14-5 in the first. For all that pressure, it was the Hillers that again came closest to finding twine. Drew Morse sent in a shot from the point that Davis knocked down. Mehra was again in the right spot to get to the rebound, but, at full stretch, Davis managed to get a toe to the shot to keep it out.
In the second, Canton kept the chances coming (outshooting Hopkinton 12-2 in the period). Griffin Hughes fed Brian Middleton in front but his tip was kept out by Lang (31 saves) who then made a stunning, diving, glove save to deny Colin Blake, who had steamed in to knock the rebound into what looked like an open net.
Chaput chipped a puck up the boards for Tourgee to test the goalie from the right wing circle. Then it was Travis Thomas with a quick wraparound effort that Lang kept out. Mehra would get Hopkinton’s best chance of the second when he pounced on a mistake in the neutral zone to fire a shot on Davis. Michael Thomas added a chance from the slot, but again Lang was able to get a pad on it.
Finally, with 1:48 left in the second, Canton was able to find the back of the net, letting off a celebration that was at least in part a sigh of relief. Fittingly, after all those great chances, it was a scruffy goal to tie things up. Young’s shot from the left point was saved by Lang. The loose puck landed right on the stick of Tourgee who smashed his shot off the post, back off his skate, and then across the line.
After waiting so long to get the first, the Bulldogs needed only a minute before netting a second. Digirolamo used his big frame to power off the left wing boards towards goal. The puck was poked out to Middleton, who whipped a shot past Lang to put Canton in front.
“I think it was a little relief, definitely felt like there was a little less tension in the locker room, but these guys, the way that they approach every game, every period, is shift-by-shift,” Shuman said. “That’s the approach they took in the third. We don’t want to get too high or too low.”
The third period wasn’t as frenetic as the first two, as Canton tried to limit the stretch passes that Hopkinton looked so dangerous on and the Hillers tried to get Mehra into space to create. Dylan Mansur got the puck in front to Danny White to force a pad stop from Davis and Mehra made a great play to get the puck past the defense to Joe Scardino, but again the Canton goalie was equal to it.
For a defensive unit that graduated some important pieces, Canton’s pairings of Young, Hughes, Matt Anderson, Leo Owens, Jack Lauro, and Teddy Shuman, and with Davis in net, allowed only two goals in five playoff games this year.
“Colin Davis has been fantastic,” Shuman said. “We graduated arguably some of the best defensemen we’ve ever seen in this program, and for these guys to step up, some guys who were watching in the stands [last year] playing huge minutes, I couldn’t be prouder of them.”
With less than three minutes to play, Canton doubled its lead. AJ Thomas slipped a pass to Chaput as he raced into the left wing circle and his fellow senior roofed his shot over Lang to make it 3-1. It was Chaput’s fifth goal in five playoff games.
“We just sit back and think about who we’re doing this for,” Thomas said about his team’s resiliency. He noted the inspiration that the Bulldogs have gotten from Kieran Whall, a Canton three-year-old battling leukemia. “For everyone out there, who came tonight, it’s amazing, we’re doing it for them. We just look back and see who we’re doing it for and go out and do it.”
The Hillers pulled Lang and desperately tried to find a goal that would get them back into the game, but with 25.9 on the clock, just as he did against Duxbury in the semifinal, Thomas found the empty netter that sealed the win and the state title.
“It’s crazy,” Young explained. “It feels so good. I’m speechless. Last Canton High game, you got to win.”
Asked about his program’s consistency, Shuman replied, “These guys, they put a lot of pressure on themselves. They’ve been in the stands watching some kids who are older than them on the ice raising the trophy and that’s their dream.”
“I think last year we felt that pressure and played well, just came up short. This year, I thought the players’ mental approach coming into this game was just outstanding. They were really having some fun this week.”