BOSTON, Mass. – Throughout its postseason run, Canton has been able to put teams on their heels almost from the drop of the puck and has mostly played from in front. On Saturday evening at the TD Garden, it was Tewksbury that got off to the quick start and the Bulldogs were never able to fully recover.
In a rematch of the 2019 Div. 2 title game, the Redmen came out with extra energy, scored twice in the first period and then held on in the third to secure a 3-1 win. Tewksbury clinched its first title since 2011, ended Canton’s win streak at 22 games, its postseason win streak at 13 games, and its bid at a third straight state championship.
“It was a heck of a hockey game,” said Canton coach Brian Shuman. “I think two of the better hockey teams in the state made it this far and Tewksbury came as advertised, outstanding team, especially on the back end, made it really hard to get any offense going in this game and then when you did get a couple opportunities against them their goalie made some great saves.”
He added, “Incredibly proud of our guys battling. It could’ve unraveled there when we went down 2-0 but we fought.”
It didn’t take the top seed long to show its intent to put pressure on the Canton defense. Jason Cooke forced a turnover in the attacking zone and fired a shot that freshman goalie Colin Davis turned aside with his blocker.
A couple minutes later, the Redmen took the lead. Caden Connors split a pair of Canton defensemen to get in on goal. He dragged Davis away from the net with a nice deke and the loose puck was knocked into the empty net by Matthew Cooke.
Things seemed to be just a little bit off for the Bulldogs. Passes didn’t seem quite as crisp or as accurate and pucks just seemed to be rolling off the blade at crucial times. Still, Canton kept battling and trying to create chances. Eddie Gillis set up a couple of shots, one from the blue line for Ryan Doucette and another on the forehand for AJ Thoams but Benjamin O’Keefe saved them both.
Davis came up with a big save with four minutes left in the first, as he stayed strong to deny a point-blank tip from Jason Cooke. Canton picked up a penalty on the back check and Tewksbury took advantage of the extra skater to double the lead. Connors again showed off his stick skills, weaving his way through three players before dragging it to the backhand while falling and depositing it in the open net.
“They did exactly what you want to do in a game like that, which is get the puck in the other team’s zone and keep it there for a while,” Shuman said about Tewksbury’s fast start. “Our goalie made some big saves. They set the tone for the game and, when that happens, it takes a little while to claw back in it, but I thought we did.”
Canton had a couple of chances at the end of the first. Eamon Kelly took a hit and forced a blocker save out of O’Keefe from the slot and Brennen Pecararo tried to match Connors with a dangle through the legs of the defensemen but O’Keefe closed down the five-hole.
Although shots were nearly even in the first (10-9), Tewksbury seemed to be creating more clear-cut chances. That continued at the start of the second. Another turnover gifted Cooke with a chance from close range that Davis saved. Two minutes in, Justin Rooney had a shot deflected and Doucette had to clear the rebound from the crease.
Brendan Tourgee tried to get things going with a steal in the neutral zone and a shorthanded slap shot that was partially blocked and kicked away by O’Keefe. With seven minutes left in the period, Canton had a great chance to get back into the game. Patrick Drurry’s shot from the left wing boards was kicked right to the stick of Brian Middleton in the slot, but the sophomore’s wrister was snagged by O’Keefe’s quick glove.
There were signs that the Bulldogs had turned the tide a little and they got a huge opportunity with their first power play. Sean Connolly twice had shots from the point saved, despite Jack Digirolamo providing a net-front presence, and Kelly forced a save with a wraparound try. Pecararo then hit Thomas right on the edge of the crease but again the Tewksbury goalie was there.
Canton made the breakthrough midway through the third period. Gillis collected the puck in the slot and slid a perfect pass into the path of an onrushing Thomas, who slammed in a one-timer to cut the lead to 2-1 with 7:13 to play.
“AJ’s had a great year,” Shuman said. “I think he surprised some people early on but he didn’t surprise anyone in our locker room. He’s got such a quick shot and he’s truly talented around the net.”
The spark of life from Canton was short-lived. In fact, it was Tewksbury that seemed to get a boost. Tyler Barnes spun and fired off a quick shot that Davis did well to turn aside, Ryan Flynn jumped on a mistake to race in alone but smacked the bar, and then Barnes got behind the defense on another breakaway only for Davis to shut down the five-hole and keep the Bulldogs in it.
With Canton pressing forward in the final minute and the net empty, Connors was able to break free down the left wing and he sealed the win for the Redmen.
When asked what it meant to be back playing at the Garden, especially after the Bulldogs were denied that opportunity in 2020, Shuman said, “Give me this any day of the week, to be here and give the kids the chance to play in this wonderful place, this amazing venue, and it’s just great to be back playing postseason sports. There’s nothing like it.”
Canton (22-3-1) has lost only four games in the past four seasons, including two unbeaten campaigns. In that span, the Bulldogs have won four league titles, extended their win streak in the Hockomock League to 43 games, won two state titles, made three state title game appearances, and compiled a remarkable record of 79-4-6.
“It’s a testament to the kids that we have,” Shuman said about the sustained success of the program. “You look up in the stands there and you see all these Canton youth hockey players and these younger players from Canton that dream about being out there and they work hard so that they can make it out there and they work hard so they can make our program great when they do make it here.
“I think it’s a community effort and a community love for the sport and I think it just feeds itself.”