BOSTON -- With under three minutes to go in a 1-1 hockey game, Alison Butler found herself racing up the left wing on a two-on-one.
The Spartans senior standout had teammate Madison Molea alongside on the right, but passing really wasn't an option. Butler waited for the lone defender to slide over toward Molea, then set her sights low and fired.
The puck found its mark, reaching the back of the net, for the umpteenth time in her career, and arguably the best girls hockey player in Massachusetts delivered in the clutch. Goalie Lauren Skinnion made three huge saves over the final minute and St. Mary's knocked off archrivals Arlington Catholic, 2-1, to claim the program's fourth Div. 1 state championship in the last six years.
"I just took the puck out two-on-one and the D kind of moved over to Madison so I just shot it," Butler said, describing her game-winner. "There's no such thing as a bad shot at that point in the game and it went in. I was always going to shoot it. I noticed the far side was open and I wanted to shoot it low because I know (AC goalie Megan Messuri) has a good glove so I just shot it low and wide and it went in."
Spartans coach Frank Pagliuca was on his star after the second period, feeling like she wasn't performing up to her usual standards at that point of the game. Butler clearly took the words to heart and found the spark that she needed.
"I kind of got on her a bit after the second," Pagliuca admitted. "I didn't think she was playing particularly as well as she could but she really responded to that in the third period. I think she's the best player in the state. She got that opportunity and she buried it. The first time she came down and took a slap shot and I tried to tell her, 'You can't be predictable all the time' and I think she threw (Messuri) off with the quick shot like that."
A SECOND-LINE PLAYER IN NAME ONLY
While Butler may in fact be the leading candidate for ESPN Boston's Miss Hockey Award, fellow forward Gabby Crugnale should be in line for any sort of most improved player nods. The senior totaled just 11 points last season but emerged as one of the Spartans top weapons, more than doubling her output to 25 points while centering the second line.
Crugnale's abilities and a newfound confidence make a second-line player in name only, and she showed off some of that when Sarah Ryan sent her off on a terrific rush and Crugnale finished with a rifle right down the middle for the game's first goal at 14:37 of the opening frame.
"The one thing I can do good is my speed," Crugnale said. "When I get the puck I just try to skate as hard as a I can to the net. Girls were getting in my way but I just tried to focus and calm down and get around them. When I scored, I was just like, 'Wow, that was a great feeling.'"
Crugnale admits to having confidence issues, although you would never it watching her on the ice. She was one of the most talked about players during The 8 Showcase in Hingham at the end of the regular season amongst the visiting coaches and scouts. On the ice, she displayed abilities that caused Pagliuca to resist the temptation to put her on the Spartans top line lest she shy away toward more prolific teammates such as Butler and Kaleigh Finigan.
"The thing with me is that I don't have confidence in myself," Crugnale admitted. "But this year, and even last year, I started having more confidence. Before, I'd be scared to go on the ice, I'd be scared to make a mistake. This year, I don't know why but every time I got on the ice I wasn't afraid."
SKINNION & D TRIO MAKING A MARK
Often lost in the shuffle of St. Mary's successes are the goaltenders. The Spartans previous two goalies, Kelsey Magrane and Sarah Foss, were supremely talented stoppers who simply weren't called upon all that much to win games as the team was loaded with high-powered offensive players.
While the top-end talent is still there, there isn't as much of it and Skinnion has been called on to do her part...and then some...more often those that came before her. Additionally, the Spartans have relied primarily on just three defensemen - Tatiana Doucette, Amanda Donahoe and Vanessa VanBuskirk - and that quartet came up with some of its best hockey over the past month.
Sunday, Skinnion made 24 saves, allowing just a second period goal by AC standout Adrieana Rossini. In the game's final minute, Skinnion snuffed out a wraparound bid by Duggan Delano, then got Delano again on a quick shot off a faceoff win to help preserve the win.
"My defense played great today," the junior said, deflecting some of the credit. "We know that they like to work from the corner to the high slot. They're going to curl a lot and just try to get the wraparounds or the high slot shots with a back door so that's what I had my mind planning on what do in those situations and how I approached the game."
She also came through in a huge spot at the end of the second, as the Spartans were called for a pair of penalties and were left to kill off a 35-second, five-on-three situation.
"We tried to set up a box-and-one but for some reason one of the kids wasn't moving the puck like she should have been," explained AC coach Maggie Taverna. "And when you don't move the puck on the power play, it's easier to defend it so it wasn't as productive as we would have wished it to be. They had opportunities and scoring is a difficult thing. Thats why hockey games are so low, the scoring is so low. You have a big goalie in the net and you have to move her to get the puck behind her."