HINGHAM, Mass. -- One of the oldest sports cliches in the book is that your best players have to step and play their best in the biggest games. There may be no greater example of that in Massachusetts girls' hockey than Austin Prep goalie Shannon O'Neil.
The Franklin Pierce-bound senior made 38 saves, 23 of which came in the third period, to help lead No. 21 seed Austin Prep in a 4-0 shutout of No. 12 Hingham in a Div. 1 girls' hockey preliminary round game at Pilgrim Arena Wednesday night.
Jaimee Cooke and Kiely Annese had the first two goals, and Maddy Ricci added a pair of empty-netters for the Cougars (11-7-4). The shutout was O'Neil's 10th on the season and third in three tries against the Harborwomen. In those three games, the senior has amassed a total of 128 saves.
"She played unbelievable," AP head coach Stephanie Wood said of O'Neil. "Against this team she seems to thrive, she certainly did tonight. I think she quite possibly played the game of the season tonight against Hingham. With a very young squad that we have, she's certainly the backbone of this team and in situations like this, when the game is on the line in clutch situations, this is where she's at her best and where she thrives. As you could see for yourself, she's certainly the reason that the team won this game tonight."
Hingham (13-7-3) routinely piled up 35-plus shots per game and the Harborwomen unleashed a barrage at O'Neil in the final frame that any goalie wouldn't have been blamed for faltering in the face of. Staked to a 1-0 lead courtesy of a shot from the point through traffic by defenseman Cooke during a 5-on-3 advantage, it was up to O'Neil to make it hold up as the Harborwomen outshot the Cougars by a 38-10 margin for the game.
It started in the opening minutes, getting in front of an early shot at the end of a quick break by Hingham's Cat Linehan. Next up was shooting shooting the left skate out in the nick of time to get a piece of a Tori Messina wraparound bid. A faceoff win in the Cougars zone led to a a quick snap by Linehan as well as the rebound. O'Neil stopped both. Alexandria Gong got off a shot from a tough angle in deep, no problem for O'Neil. Emily Falvey jamming in front at a loose puck? Two more saves. Sneaky backhanded shot through traffic by Hingham star Jane Freda? No problem.
On and on it went as the Harborwomen fired off 16 shots before the Cougars could manage one with 3:15 to go, a shot they made count as Annese fired a perfect shot through a small over the goalie's shoulder on a power play for APs second goal.
Hingham drew a power play with 2:23 remaining and pulled goalie Taylor Walsh to make it a 6-on-4, but Annese cleared the puck from the zone just by the post and Ricci was able to swipe in the rebound as Gong desperately tried to block her. Ricci added her second empty-netter with two seconds left.
For her part, O'Neil was quick to credit her defensive teammates, who did a terrific job of blocking shots and keeping Hingham's explosive offensive players out on the perimeter while leaving clear lanes for the standout netminder to see the shots.
"My team played really well today in front of me," O'Neil said. "They cleared everyone out and I could see the puck perfectly, I didn't really get screened a lot so it was pretty simple. I just got the initial shot and they cleared the rebounds."
When asked about what it is that makes her play so well in Hingham's barn, O'Neil simply responded, "I honestly don't even know, I really don't. I don't know, we always bring our game here. We just know when we have a big game, we have to come out and play our hardest."
ANOTHER STAR OF THE GAME
Maddy Ricci isn't the biggest player on the ice by any means, but her role in the Cougars victory was every bit as essential as ONeil's performance in the cage. Ricci was charged with shadowing All-Stater Jane Freda for the second time this season and kept her off the scoreboard.
"Maddy Ricci is a little spitfire," Wood praised. "She is a breath of fresh air on this team. We know that Hingham is a very tough team and that Freda is a very good player and that was really one of our goals tonight. We knew if we would have a chance against Hingham, we would have to shut her down. Maddy played a huge role in doing that."
Ricci attached herself to Freda's hip and followed her everywhere she went for 45 minutes. Anywhere you saw Freda's No. 4 Hingham jersey, the No. 3 AP sweater worn by Ricci was never far behind. It also seemed quite fitting that Ricci ended up being the player who got both empty-netters, a just reward on offense for a tremendous defensive effort.
"We did that last game and it worked and in this game it worked again, I just didn't let her out of my sight," Ricci explained. "You have to your head on a swivel. Like my coach said, you have to have one hand on your stick and don't let her out of sight. Don't let her touch the puck. Get in her head. I'm littler than her so I put my shoulder into her and she just couldn't get the puck."
Hingham coach Tom Findley emptied his bag of tricks to try and get Freda and his offense going. He tried having Freda skate toward other defenders, he implored his own defensemen to step up and join the attack, and he even bumped sophomore blue liner Tori Messina up to a forward spot in the game's final minutes in hopes of clearing out some space.
"We knew they were going to shadow her but we told her just skate to another Austin Prep player and bring her with you," Findley said. "I think at times she did. I think she got five or six shots on net, which in some cases she might put a couple of those in. But that's the key against any good player."
Findley also related a story about how he used a similar strategy of shadowing an opposing teams star player during Hingham's run to the Div. 1 state championship in 2011.
"I remember us doing the same thing against Sabrina Ianetti at St. Mary's. We had [Katie Walsh] on her, just watching her. [Austin Prep] basically took one player out, she's our player, and they did a great job at it. What we we didn't do, we were telling our defensemen to jump into the play in the offensive zone and they were just standing at the blue line. They didn't quite understand what we were talking about as far as, go in because the rebounds are coming out and just be an option.
"At the end, we tried to throw one of our defensemen up front, try to get some offense going, try to create some space, but it's hard for a kid who hasn't played forward," he continued. "That's the nature of hockey games. I'm proud of my kids for the season. We'll regroup and come back next year and I'm hoping the best for Austin Prep through the tournament and all the teams and hopefully next year we'll be back in the same spot."
NO EXPERIENCE? NO MATTER
Wednesday night marked Austin Prep's first postseason appearance since 2010, and second since the Cougars were the runner-up to Arlington Catholic in 2007. The Cougars lost both of those games. None of the four seniors on this year's squad, which includes O'Neil and Annese, played in the 2010 game, while Hingham posted an 11-3 record in postseason play (with a Div. 1 state title in 2011) prior to last night since moving up to Div 1 in 2009. Coach Stephanie Wood is also in her first year behind the bench with the Cougars.
The lack of experience didn't phase the Cougars, who took advantage of the few opportunities that presented themselves. The first two goals came on special teams, and O'Neil looked like a seasoned, playoff veteran.
"A goal that we set at the beginning of the year was simply to make the playoffs," Wood explained. "That's something that Austin hasn't been able to do for the last three years. We knew going into this game, the pressure wasn't on us. We wanted to come in and be the spoiler. We knew that just by simply getting the win, we've achieved something that the program hasn't been able to do for about five or six years and that's advance to the next round."