BUZZARDS BAY, Mass. – With the clock running down under a minute to play in Saturday afternoon’s semifinal at the Gallo Ice Arena, Duxbury was pressing hard to try and find the tying goal. The puck bounced out to the blue line and Canton senior forward AJ Thomas was able to get a stick on it, use his body to shield it from a couple of Duxbury players, and break forward into the neutral zone.
Under pressure, Thomas veered towards the near boards and then flicked a shot towards an empty Duxbury goal. When the puck crossed the line, the Canton bench exploded in both relief and joy. Thomas had just sealed a come-from-behind 3-1 victory and booked Canton’s fourth straight appearance at the TD Garden to play for the Div. 2 state title.
“It doesn’t get old,” said senior forward Jeffrey Chaput after the game. With the Canton girls getting ready to take the ice as he was speaking, Chaput added, “It’s really tradition. It’s just Canton hockey, we’re used to being at the Garden. As you see the girls going on right now, this is a town of hockey.”
Canton coach Brian Shuman said, “It’s all about this group. They’re playing their best hockey at the right time and I can’t even begin to say how proud I am of them. We have a tremendous amount of respect for [Duxbury] and knew we had to come out and play well and I’m just so happy for our guys because they really earned this opportunity.”
Scoring chances were limited in a first period that felt like both teams were probing to see how the other was going to attack. Connor O’Connell had a shot from the left wing circle that forced Canton goalie Colin Davis (15 saves) into an early stop and Brendan Tourgee quickly tested Duxbury goalie Sam Mazanec (31 saves) on the other end.
Davis was called on to make a tough blocker save on Tucker O’Neill’s shot through traffic from the right point and then again he came up with a nice pad stop on Aiden Harrington, after the forward picked off an outlet pass in the slot.
Canton defenseman Matt Anderson fired a shot from the right point that Thomas got a stick to on the edge of the crease, but it went just over the bar. Chaput had one final chance in the closing seconds of the first and his shot from a tough angle was covered up at the near post.
Things picked up considerably for Canton in the second. The Bulldogs would outshoot Duxbury 14-3 in the period.
Chaput got things started with a perfect cross-ice pass to Anderson racing down the right wing, but the shot from the face-off dot went high. A couple minutes later, Chaput again started the play in his own zone, chipping it up the boards to Tourgee, who fed it to Thomas for a backhand effort that Mazanec saved.
Five minutes into the period, Jack Digirolamo thought he had put Canton in front. A flurry of chances, including a shot from the point by Leo Owens, had the Dragons on their heels and Digirolamo pounced on a loose puck on the edge of the crease, but the refs judged Mazanec to have gloved the shot before it crossed the line.
Colin Blake teed up Digirolamo for another chance a few minutes later and Mazanec again stayed with the play to make a point-blank stop.
All that dominance didn’t end with the opening goal and Duxbury stunned the Bulldogs by grabbing the lead with 4:53 left in the period. Wick Ross pinched in from the point and fired a wrister that went off the top of Davis’ glove and snuck over the line.
“I think this is a tribute to the players on the bench,” Shuman said, “as soon as the goal went in they said, ‘We’re fine, we’re fine, we’re fine.’ That wasn’t the coaches, that was all them, and that just goes to show you how much this team has grown over the course of the year.”
Duxbury had two players go to the box with 13 seconds left in the second, which meant that Canton had a perfect opportunity to try and get back into the game in the third. The Bulldogs wouldn’t waste that chance.
A minute into the third, with Canton camped out in the Duxbury zone, Thomas collected the puck on the left wing side of the goal and slipped a perfect pass across the crease to Chaput, who buried the chance, before racing down to the other end of the ice to celebrate with the Canton fans.
Chaput explained, “I was just thinking between periods, ‘We need one, we need one, we need one.’ After I saw the puck go in, I thought of all the hard work this whole team, not just me, the freshmen, the kids who don’t play, the managers, the coaches, everyone does a tremendous amount of work.”
The game stayed tied at 1-1 for more than nine minutes and the tension grew, as every shot on either goal was cheered like it could be the winner. With 4:36 to play, Tourgee took a hit in the neutral zone. The puck skipped free and Thomas sped between a pair of Duxbury players to get in all alone on Mazanec. He patiently picked his spot and put the Bulldogs in front.
“I can’t tell you how happy I am for him,” Shuman said of Thomas. “He’s someone that takes pride in the little things, wants to do the little things well, and for him to make that play at the end was fitting because I feel like he’s had an unheralded season so far. For everyone to see what he does for us is just great.”
Canton tried to add a third with James Young setting up Thomas for a shot through a crowd that was gloved. On the other end, Duxbury was sending everyone at goal in an effort to keep its title hopes alive. Sean Hanniffy had a good tip in front that went inches wide of the post and Davis stuck out a right pad to keep another chance out.
Thomas stepped up again in the final minute to secure the two-goal cushion, letting the Bulldogs breathe a little easier and get ready to once again skate on the biggest stage.
Asked about a fourth consecutive trip to the final, Shuman said, “We’re so lucky to have a group of players that when new guys come in they feel an obligation and a responsibility to carry on this tradition. I feel like the luckiest coach in the world getting to coach all these guys.”
Canton (21-4) will face the winner of No. 4 Walpole and No. 8 Hopkinton at the TD Garden next Sunday, at a time to be determined.
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