BRIGHTON, Mass. – Last winter, Canton was the No. 14 seed, an underdog and an afterthought for many of the people picking favorites to make a run at a state championship. This season, the Bulldogs have been considered Div. 2 title contenders for months and earned the No. 2 seed coming into the tournament. There was no sneaking up on opponents this year, instead Canton has had to deal with the weight of high expectations.
While the journey has been very different from last year to this one, the end result is the same. Canton will be heading to the TD Garden to play for the state title on the final day of the winter season.
The Bulldogs earned their spot in the final with a 1-0 victory over third-seeded Archbishop Williams on Monday night at the Warrior Ice Arena courtesy of 16 saves from senior goalie Colleen Kelleher and a goal from junior Maggie Malloy, her sixth of the postseason.
“Last year was insane,” Kelleher explained. “We had no idea we could even do that, it was a joke. We just kept going, game after game, but this year it was more like, we have to make it back and we have to get our second chance and we have to win. I think we were a little more motivated this time but it still feels just as sweet.
Canton coach Dennis Aldrich said, “Last year we snuck up on a lot of people. We were supposed to lose every game last year. To do what these kids have done with the target on their back all year because people knew where we were last year…this is a bigger accomplishment for this program. They stuck together.”
The Bulldogs got off to a strong start to the state semifinal, suffering no hangover from last week’s win over Notre Dame Academy (Hingham) that avenged last year’s title game defeat. Andrea McNeil set up Maria Femia for a golden scoring opportunity just five minutes in only to be denied the opener by Archies goalie Allison Delmonte.
Two minutes later, Lauren Fitzpatrick drove at the net from the left circle but a last-second poke check by the goalie kept her from getting off a shot. McNeil stole the puck on the forecheck but missed the net from the slot and freshman Lizzie Tassinari managed to get off a shot while falling down and forced a pad stop.
Kendra Farrelly nearly picked the top corner only to have Delmonte get her shoulder to the first try and also block Farrelly’s follow up. Canton finished with six shots in the first, despite controlling most of the play and keeping Archies on its heels.
The Bulldogs kept pressing at the start of the second with the forecheck continuing to cause problems for the Bishops, forcing turnovers and leading to shots on goal. The Canton forwards were also putting in shifts in the defensive zone and one backcheck by Femia allowed her to break out quickly and create an odd-man rush with Tassinari but again Delmonte made the save.
The breakthrough finally came with 8:42 left in the second. Malloy, who also scored the game-winners in each of Canton’s two previous playoff games this season, showed off her speed in the neutral zone after an outlet by Alexa Maffeo and got space in the right circle. As she angled towards goal, she fired an unstoppable shot just under the bar for the 1-0 lead.
“There is no one who works harder,” said Aldrich of Malloy. “She deserves everything she gets because she’s the hardest working player on our team. She’s a gamer and she brings it every night. She may not have the polished skill that some people do but what she has you can’t teach.”
Femia and Tassinari continued to cause fits on the second line with both having good scoring chances in the second and Fitzpatrick got free for a shot after Leah McClellan managed to keep a puck in at the blue line.
Before the game, Aldrich talked about trying to wear Archies down and in the second period he used his third line of Marissa Devane, Ellie Rae Roberts, and Katie Halloran a few times to try and add a little energy and give his other lines a short breather.
Aldrich said, “We don’t normally go strictly two lines but we looked to do that in the first period to maybe get a little quick strike on them. It didn’t work as planned but then we were able to spot the third line out there a couple times and it really got us energized. They only got maybe three, four shifts but they were important shifts for us.”
Canton gave Archies the chance to get back into the game with three penalties in the third period, but the Bulldogs were so aggressive on the kill that the Bishops struggled at times to get the puck out of their defensive zone.
“When you’re tired,” Aldrich explained, “if you’re out-worked by the penalty kill it works against you; you have to work harder. I think we wore them out just enough. We take pride in the third period too, whether we’re even strength or a man down, we try to keep it simple and we actually did a great job of that.”
McNeil and Malloy both had chances to seal the win but Delmonte continued to be stout in the Archies goal. Kelleher was largely untroubled on the other end of the ice with the biggest save of note being a second period stop on Mackenzie Heath after she skated in all alone. With 4:35 remaining in the game, Kelleher was called on again after Hanna Bell spun in the slot and fired a snap shot that the Canton goalie was able to kick aside.
It was a solid stop, especially since Kelleher had been mostly a spectator as the Bulldogs jumped out to a 10-1 advantage in shots in the third.
“It’s so nerve-wracking,” said Kelleher of not having to be ready after a long time between saves. “Even though in the games I face more shots I may let in more goals but I’m more focused in the game and my legs are warmed up. It’s definitely harder in these types of games.”
Archies finished with a flurry, desperately seeking the tying goal. Heath had the final scoring opportunity as she pinched in from the point on the power play, but her shot was saved by Kelleher.
At the final horn, the Canton players raced to their goalie to celebrate. This tournament run may be different than last year, but in the end that feeling of knowing that you are playing for a state title remains.
“I couldn’t stop smiling,” Kelleher gushed. “My heart just like burst. I don’t even know, it gave me butterflies. I’m so excited still.”
Canton (18-3-3) will face top seed Wellesley in the Div. 2 state championship game on Sunday at the TD Garden, time to be determined.