BILLERICA, Mass. -- After three regulations frames and an overtime, Ashley Wojewodzic sat on the bench watching shooter after shooter take to the ice as her St. Mary's teammates engaged in an epic shootout with Woburn for the right to play for a Div. 1 state championship next Sunday at TD Garden.
The eighth-grade defenseman hadn't taken a shift all night but wasn't worried, figuring with all the talent on the two teams, someone in the first five shooters would score a goal. Spartans goalie Lauren Skinnion and Tanners netminder Courtney Davis felt otherwise, however, as they took turns snapping off every shot, every deke and snagging every puck that came their way.
Finally, after nine players had taken a turn, St. Mary's coach Frank Pagliuca looked down the bench and called for 'Wojo' to get out there. With the huge crowd hanging on every move, the youngster was rightfully nervous. She was the last Spartans shooter before the lineup went back to the top and the game would be decided by the multitude of all-stars on each roster.
After a word of encouragement from fellow defenseman Amanda Donahoe, Wojewodzic went to center ice, skated in drifting to her right, pulling Davis over in the process, then slipped the puck right between the pads for the first goal of the shootout. Woburn's Shannon Walsh had one last chance to extend it but her shot hit the post and the Spartans poured onto the ice to celebrate.
"I didn't expect it at all," Wojewodzic said of hearing her name called. "I thought one of the first five shooters were going to get it in and it just kept going and going and going. Then I heard [Pagliuca] call my name and my eyes went open and he just looked at me and told me to go and I was really nervous.
She added, "I was just a little nervous. It was nervewracking getting out in front of everybody that was here because there were so any people out here. Everyone was watching me, it was scary."
Nerves or not, the eighth-grade defensemen came off the bench cold and sent her team back to TD Garden to play for the Div. 1 girls hockey state championship for the fifth time in the last six years with a 3-2 victory over No. 1 seed Woburn.
"Every team practices the shootout," Pagliuca said. "We kind of knew our list, 1-10, what we were going to do, we were just trying to figure out the order that we wanted to go in. Congrats to Ashley, she came up and pulled a great move. We told the kids to look five-hole, Ashley got her to open up and finished the job."
THIRD PERIOD FRENZY
That overtime or a shootout was even needed to decide a winner is a story unto itself. St. Mary's (18-3-4) had built a 2-0 lead on goals by freshman blueliner Vanessa Van Buskirk and senior forward Gabby Crugnale, the latter coming off an end to end rush that saw her stick a shot so perfect that Davis' water bottle went flying off the net behind her at 9:13 of the second period.
The Tanners got the first one back when Emily Lissner pounced on a bad giveaway in the Spartans zone and passed over to Ashley Moran, who fed Kayla Smith for an easy one-timer just 1:44 later.
Both Davis (19 saves) and Skinnion (27 saves) kept their respective cages clean until the final 91 seconds when Smith was the beneficiary of a fortuitous deflection off a Spartan defender. The puck landed right on her stick and Smith buried it to tie the game at 2-2.
St. Mary's needed just 20 seconds to pull back in front as Kaleigh Finigan, playing her first game in four weeks after missing time with a shoulder injury, got the puck to Crugnale, who poked it to Alison Butler for the finish.
Rather than fold up the tent, the Tanners showed their heart and tied it up once again as Erica Lissner sniped a perfect shot from the left-wing circle with just 33 seconds remaining to force the overtime.
"I was really proud of the fact that we stuck with it, didn't get too panicked," praised Woburn coach Bob MacCurtain. "I'm really proud of the kids. It was crazy. Coaches nightmare, probably the fans like it. In a tournament game this tight, there's a lot of momentum shifts and fortunately we were able to get the last one to send it into overtime."
During the first game of the season-ending 8 Showcase in Hingham, Kaleigh Finigan suffered a shoulder injury that ended up being diagnosed as an elevated clavicle. A stalwart on the Spartans top line since transferring in from Austin Prep two years ago, Finigan has provided St. Mary's with the combination of tremendous skill and a physical presence that no other player in the state quite possesses.
The senior sat out the final regular season game and all of the postseason. She dressed for the Spartans last game against Austin Prep but did not play. Finigan got an assist on the Spartans last goal in regulation and her return helped bring an edge back to the team on the ice.
"Kaleigh gave us kind of an adrenaline shot today, getting her back in the lineup," Pagliuca said. "That physical presence we've been missing the last couple of games. She wasn't 100 percent but she sucked it up and came back for us and have us a huge lift."
A potential Div. 1 scholarship softball player, Finigan had plenty of reason to take it easy but that simply isn't in her makeup. Missing out on another chance to make a run at state title? Not going to happen.
"I told my team, get me back to the semis and I'm going to play for you guys," Finigan said. "They played for me the whole time and I wanted to get back and help them win. I want those young girls to feel how we felt last year. I want them to know what the playoffs is. This is the best time of the year."
SHOOTOUT NOT A FAVORITE
It has become almost a rite of passage every March that the shootout rears its ugly head during the girls Div. 1 postseason. Since 2007, there have been at least two games decided by shootouts in each year except 2010, when there was only one.
St. Mary's has been involved in three, winning two, and Pagliuca has been outspoken each year against the format. The coach was a bit more understated this time, but his point was made clear.
"You know, we've been on the other side of those," he said. "I hate shootouts. It shouldn't be allowed but it is what it is. Unfortunately in that situation somebody has to lose the game."
MacCurtain's teams have been involved in four shootouts since 2007, splitting those games. He refused to make any excuses, but his thoughts on the subject were made pretty clear as well.
"It just makes a team sport an individual sport," the Woburn coach stated. "I'm not complaining because we knew what it was going in but it's a tough way to end the season."
MacCurtain added, "As you're watching, I think from a coach's perspective I was glad I had Courtney in my net, I felt confident. With some of the kids we had shooting I thought we would get one but I just think the team aspect gets taken away from it."
Skinnion, who made 10 stops in the shootout on top of her 27 saves in the game, said, "I would rather have it play out just because I don't want to win a game because someone got a lucky shot. I want to win by playing the game. But its what we have to do."
Spartans standout Alison Butler may have summed up the way the players and coaches on the bench feel about shootouts, simply stating, "I hate them. I think I was going to have a heart attack."