BOURNE, Mass. -- Milton punched its ticket to the MIAA Division I South regional championship game Thursday night at Gallo Ice Arena in Bourne.
Behind a 26-save effort by senior goalie Jay Hankard, the Wildcats held back a feisty Braintree team 2-0 to claim their spot in the sectional final. Milton will return to Gallo in an attempt to end Cinderella’s time at the ball on Sunday when they meet No. 9 Natick in the south finals, 1-0 winners earlier in the night over Norwood.
The second-seeded Wildcats (18-3-3) overcame a slow start to finish strongly and march on to the last line on the south bracket. Despite Braintree (14-7-3) taking it to them for most of the first two periods, the higher seed proved to be the more opportunistic of the clubs. Milton cashed in a power play chance late in the second period and then got some insurance on a transition play midway through the third, posting the only tallies on the scoreboard for the night.
“I thought that we deserved a little bit of a better fate. Obviously, Milton’s a great team, about as good as you’re going to see in the state. We knew that we had to contain them, and I believe that their first line got both of their goals,” Braintree head coach Dave Fasano said.
Indeed it was Milton’s heralded first line that did all of the damage. The unit struck first at 11:49 of the second with a power play goal. Derek Curley redirected a shot by Brian Higgins from the bottom of the left wing circle, tipping it through Dan Murphy’s 5-hole to finally end the double shutout.
Milton's first line then added some welcomed insurance when Higgins struck to double his team’s lead at 5:02 of the third. Just seconds after a huge save by Hankard the shifty forward got free and cut in from the right wing to the slot, sniping one past Murphy to double his team’s lead.
“That’s Higgy, he can skate and he can sneak up on you,” Milton head coach Paul Noonan said. “When he gets that puck in the slot, just him and the goalie, he’s pretty good.”
Hankard’s save that preceded the goal was a left pad stop on James Flaherty, who labeled a bomb for the far post on a rip from the right point. The keeper said he didn’t see it until the last second and that instincts took over.
“Those are reaction saves, see the puck, kick it out. It was through a screen, I couldn’t see it, then I saw it at the last second and just got my toe on it,” he said.
Fasano said that the stop by Hankard was a back-breaker.
“It could have been 1-1 right there,” he said.
To Noonan, it was just more of the same as he and his squad have come to expect great things from their keeper.
“Our goalie, he’s excellent. He’s been like that all year. I know a lot of people talk about our first line that we have, it’s pretty good. But (Hankard) and the defensemen, Danny Curran, Johnny Murtaugh, they’ve been awesome. They’ve been very good all year.”
Braintree, which had dominated the first period thoroughly, outshooting the Wildcats, 7-1, came painfully close to pulling within one, but it was not a night where the puck bounced the Wamps’ way. Tom Troy let one rip from between the hash marks that deflected to the left wing circle where Nick Ward was all alone. With half an empty goal to fire for Ward dented the nearside pipe.
“You’ve got to have some puck luck, and we just didn’t tonight,” Fasano said. “It didn’t bounce our way…credit Milton, they’re a heck of a team.”
Braintree did get a power play out of the flurry, a hooking call that went against Murtagh, but the extra-man scenario did not play out the way the Wamps would have liked. Braintree did not muster a shot on goal during the power play as they could not get anything set up at all.
From that point forward the Wildcats managed to keep their Bay State League rivals in check.
With 1:50 to go in the game Connor Fenton let a big slapper fly from the left point that Hankard punched away with his blocker. That was the last shot on net in the game for Braintree. Milton kept the puck in the neutral zone and beyond the rest of the way and never allowed Braintree to pull Murphy for an extra attacker.