MALDEN, Mass. – The calendar said December, but Austin Prep and Malden Catholic were playing March hockey.
The two teams were so even Friday that bonus hockey and then some was needed to decide the champion of the inaugural Christie Serino Christmas Classic. When the smoke had cleared, the No. 1 Lancers had come back from a two-goal deficit in the final two minutes to defeat the No. 6 Cougars in a shootout after a 4-4 tie at the Valley Forum.
While the Lancers claimed the tournament championship, the game counts as a tie in the MIAA standings.
“It feels really good coming back like that,” MC captain Mike Iovanna said. “We were really tired and stuck with it and pulled it through.”
The chaos started after AP senior Nolan Vesey sliced through the Lancer defense, deked MC senior goalie Connor Maloney out of position, and slid the puck in to put the Cougars up 4-2 with just over six minutes to play.
After that, the Lancers (3-0-1), who had looked lackadaisical for stretches of the first two periods, played like a two-time defending state champion.
Iovanna lifted a backhand over sophomore goaltender Elijah Harris with 2:56 left to halve the deficit.
“They sometimes think they can just show up and win and they realize, ‘Oh my god, we’ve got to get the puck deep and work,’” Malden Catholic head coach John McLean said. “They dug down again and showed a lot of character against a good team.”
AP’s Bobby Carpenter was called for a slash 30 seconds later that set up more theatrics from MC’s top line of Iovanna, sophomore Ara Nazarian, and junior Tyler Sifferlen. Iovanna came off the goal line and found Sifferlen in front. Sifferlen then jammed it home with 2:10 to play, giving the Lancers a new lease on life.
The assist was Iovanna’s second of the game and the goal capped a two-point night for Sifferlen.
“I thought that was a tough call to make at that point in the game, but I’m not going to use that [as an excuse],” AP head coach Louis Finocchiaro said. “I thought it was a fantastic high school hockey game. I’m proud of our kids. We went blow for blow [with MC]. They played hard. I told our kids, if we have an effort like that every night, we’ll be tough to beat.”
The overtime was played at a frenetic pace and saw the teams trade scoring chance after scoring chance. The most hair-raising moment for the Lancers came with Maloney caught out of position with just over two minutes left and the puck sitting in the crease. Sophomore Cam Russo wasn’t able to reposition his body to get a stick on it and wound up skating past the puck.
Maloney was able to turn aside seven shots in the overtime.
“The overtime saves were crazy,” McLean said of Maloney. “He made two or three on that one shift. He came up big when he had to. [He is a] senior goalie, Super 8-champion goalie. We relied on him. He saved the game for us.”
In the shootout, the teams were tied at two before junior Pat Wrenn skated out to take the Lancers’ fifth shot. He went 6-hole and tucked it under the arm to give MC an improbable win.
“It was the most nervous thing I’ve ever had to do,” Wrenn said. “I didn’t even know what I was going to do. I came down, made a lucky move, and it got by him.”
Serino helped build Malden Catholic into the power it is today, and both the Lancers’ coaches and players knew the importance of winning the title of his tournament.
“This is our tournament,” Iovanna said. “We had to win it for Coach.”
“It’s a huge deal for us,” Wrenn said. “It’s the first one we’ve had since he passed away, and we just wanted to come out and bring it home for him.”
“He brought a lot to this program and it was important for us to recognize him,” McLean said. “It’s our trophy and we can hold it for a year. Hopefully, we never lose it.”
RUSSO STEPS UP
Russo, the third-line center for the Cougars, had a monster game. He scored AP’s first and third goals and looked more than comfortable playing against the No. 1 team in the state.
“Cam Russo is a good, smart, head’s-up player,” Finocchiaro said. “[He is] just always in the right position. After we finished last year, I asked our coaches who did we talk to the least as a freshman and it was Cam Russo. He’s intelligent, he’s always in the right place. He just does a good job.”
CROSS COMES BACK
Last year, Andrew Cross hoisted the Super 8 championship trophy alongside his MC teammates. This year, he was in the small locker room.
Cross, a junior, was playing his first game against his old teammates since the transfer and didn’t back down. Cross played a solid game on the blue line and scored one of the Cougars’ goals in the shootout.
Finocchiaro said he was proud of the way Cross performed.
“Tough environment for him to play in where he was a former player here and I thought he played like a warrior for both nights,” Finocchiaro said. “He didn’t shy off, he played hard, and I just felt it was appropriate to give him our team award for the tournament.”
A NEEDED KICK IN THE REAR
After winning back-to-back state titles, and coming back against Hingham in the tourney opener, it seemed as if the Lancers might have become complacent.
McLean hopes that two thrillers in as many nights reignites his team.
“We have the skill to do it; we have the character to do it, but it’s going to catch us,” McLean said. “We need to be ready and we weren’t ready for two-and-a-half periods. And that’s my fault. If I have to make some changes, I’m going to make them.”
If the Lancers play the full 45 minutes to their potential, they will be just as hard to beat as their two state championship predecessors.
“I think this was a good lesson for us,” Maloney said. “After this game we’re going to come out harder in the first two periods rather than wait to the third.”
COUGARS WANTING MORE
Coming into last night’s game, AP (2-0-2) was young and unproven. No more.
While young, the Cougars have plenty of talent, but it took a performance like Friday’s to legitimize AP among the MIAA’s very best.
“I think we made a statement this tournament that we could play with the big teams,” Vesey said. “It’s unacceptable for a loss, but I like the way we competed tonight. Never accept a loss.”
Even in defeat against MC, the Cougars made a statement, and their win over St. Mary’s gives them a good idea how league play will be once it begins.
“If we get anything out of this, hopefully, we learn from it and, in February, we don’t allow that to happen,” Finocchiaro said. “I just think it’s something we’re going to build off of. I thought we had every opportunity to win the game tonight.”