WILMINGTON, Mass. -- At the conclusion of Saturday's matinee showdown between Burlington and Wilmington, Red Devils junior forward Joe Berardi returned from the locker room to search the empty net for a puck.
Berardi came away empty in his postgame quest, but he certainly won't need a keepsake to remember his performance on the afternoon of the region's first major snowfall.
The junior either found himself in the right place at the right time, hustled himself into position, or even relied on a little luck to finish with four goals to lead No. 11 Burlington to a 5-2 victory over Wilmington at Ristuccia Arena.
Berardi's linemate Brian Hood dished out assists on all five goals while junior netminder Derek DeCastro sparkled at times during a 27-save performance. In the process, the Red Devils (7-1-2, 3-1-1) moved into a first-place tie with the Wildcats (5-3-3, 3-1-1) atop the Middlesex League's small schools division.
"Joe has been playing really, really well the whole time but he was really good tonight," praised Burlington coach Bob Conceison. "Wilmington is a good team, they are a good addition to our league and I thought they played really, really well. We got kind of lucky with some of our goals at the beginning of the game."
In the final minutes of a first period primarily dominated by Wilmington, it was a hustle play by Berardi that opened the scoring. Trevor Cimino fired a shot toward Wildcats goalie Drew Foley that Berardi got a piece of. Foley made the initial stop, but the rebound came right back to Berardi off the far post and he buried it with 2:27 left in the frame.
"I saw Trevor Cimino came down the boards and I saw it was like a three-on-two developing so I crashed the net because I was the second forward and when he shot it, I kind of got a stick on it and tipped it towards the goalie," Berardi described. "The goalie made the initial save but I kept fighting through the defensemen toward the net and the puck just happened to drop right down in front of me and I just put it in."
The Red Devils seemed to have a renewed energy for the start of the second and Berardi scored on what he called a "flukey goal" in a shorthanded situation. Burlington broke up the Wildcat power play and Berardi fired in on Foley from outside the blue line. Foley dropped in time but the puck managed to sneak past his right pad at 6:24.
Just over three minutes later, Berardi scored an almost identical goal, this time getting his shot from inside the blue line. Foley flashed his glove and got a piece of it, but the puck landed behind him and over the goal line to give Burlington a 3-0 lead.
"I just took two shots form the blue line thinking, this goalie's really good," said Berardi, who admitted he was hoping to create rebound chances for his teammates. "You never think they would just go in that way but..."
On the Red Devils next trip into the Wilmington zone, both Hood and Dan McMahon set up senior captain Brett Romkey for Burlington's fourth tally.
Wilmington actually regained momentum after that courtesy of a wicked slap shot from the right faceoff circle by sophomore Cody McGowan that can be best described by taking a mental picture of former Red Sox slugger Rob Deer almost screwing himself into the batter's box dirt while chasing a fastball down the heart of the plate and sending it screaming over the Green Monster.
Luke Foley got back a second goal for the Wildcats, pouncing on the rebound of another hard shot by McGowan that cut the deficit to 4-2 with 2:06 to go in the second.
"They don't give up which is the good thing about them," said Wilmington coach Steve Scanlon of his team. "They keep going right to the end. That was a big spark, getting those two back."
A stellar effort by DeCastro would be needed to douse that spark, and the junior came through when his team needed him in both the first and the third periods.
The Wildcats had multiple opportunities from point-blank range in the first, all of which DeCastro was able to stifle among his 10 saves.
In the third, the junior came up big again with 12 stops, stoning Wilmington's Brendan McDonough three times on prime scoring chances, and thwarting a one-timer bid by Trevor Foley among the highlights.
"He's very focused," Conceison said of DeCastro. "They got the two goals that shifted the momentum a little bit. We got a little bit of momentum on the lucky goals, it got us going, it motivated us. And they got some momentum after the second goal, they were back in the game but Derek has been very focused and very consistent all year. I thought he had a great game today."