WEST SPRINGFIELD, Mass. -- These kids really are alright.
Before the start of the season, there were some who wondered aloud if Springfield Cathedral would be able to cut it with so many underclassmen on its roster. Carrying just one senior and dressing nine freshman and a pair of eighth-graders, there was concern as to whether or not the Panthers could handle the rigors of a extremely-difficult Division 1 schedule.
Just a couple games shy of the season's halfway point, Cathedral is answering those critics with ferocity. Following Thursday night's 6-1 trouncing of Catholic West Hockey Conference foe St. John's (Shrewsbury) at the Olympia Ice Center, the Panthers seemed poised for a third straight appearance in the Super 8 tournament.
After sluggish start against the Pioneers, Cathedral took control of things over the final 30 minutes. The Panthers scored a pair of second period goals and added three more in the third to put this one to rest. With the victory, No. 11 Cathedral improves to 7-1-1 and wins the conference title with a mark of 3-0-1.
No. 7 St. John's, which came into the tilt riding a four-game win streak, fell to 5-2-1 (1-1-1).
Junior forward Peter Crinella's pirouette goal, coming at 5:20 of the middle frame, proved to be the difference.
The Pioneers struggled mightily all night lone inside the offensive zone. The Panther forwards and defensemen tag-teamed to knock St. John's off-course when it had the puck on its collective sticks, constantly being tied up. The Pioneers could only muster just 13 shots on Cathedral senior goaltender John Liquori.
Meanwhile, the Panthers riddled goalie Mario Pizzeri for 31 shots, including 23 over the final two periods.
"Coming into this game we were treating it like a playoff game," Cathedral head coach Brian Foley said. "It's still early in the season but it was two ranked teams going at one another. This was a very important game for us and we treated it as such. Our kids have been working very hard. Tonight I think we played more of a complete game, especially in the second and third periods."
With the Panthers clinging to their one-goal lead, sophomore Johnny Leonard gave them a little breathing space at 13:38 of the middle frame after coming down the right half board before cutting in front and ripping a hard wrist shot by Pizzeri to make it 3-1 going into the second intermission. Just prior to Leonard's tally, St. John's senior Mike McGillicuddy broke in free on Liquori with a chance to tie the game but the solid netminder stoned him.
The way Pioneers were being bottled up by Cathedral after the first two periods, you had the feeling a two-goal advantage appeared safe. But for good measure, the Panthers never took their foot off the gas pedal. Just 21 seconds into the final period, Crinella bagged his second goal with a one-timer off a feed from D.J. Petruzzelli.
"We knew St. John's was a great team and they were older than us," said Crinella, who leads the team with 15 goals. "They play very physical. We've got a lot of young guys and day-by-day we continue to get better. We have great chemistry. We can always get better but I think we're doing pretty good right now. Everyone is contributing which is so important."
Seven minutes later, freshman Kyle Kazeroid scored his first career goal, taking a Tim Zmuda pass from behind the net and rifling a shot past Pizzeri to make it a 5-1 contest. Petruzzelli would close the book on this one at 9:42, putting back a shot that caromed off the crossbar.
Last month, when the two powers met in Worcester, Cathedral took a two-goal lead into the closing period only to watch the Pioneers storm back with a pair of goals to tie them 3-3. For the Panthers, that game felt more like a loss than a tie. This time around, they were determined not to let up no matter the score.
"We had a tough game tonight," St. John's head coach Mike Mead said. "When your basically outshot by a 2-to-1 ratio on the road against a very good team it's tough to win like that. Our kids never quit and battled to the end but unfortunately this wasn't our night. I thought Cathedral was better-prepared for this time than last time. They didn't under estimate us this time. They were more aggressive. We didn't match their aggressiveness and we didn't match their intensity. They were better-prepared than we were and I've got to do a better job preparing our kids for games like this."
Panther freshman Riley Prattson staked his team out to a 1-0 lead at 8:07 of the first period with a quick shot in front that eluded Pizzeri. But just over a minute later, Patrick Storer knotted things for the Pioneers. Catching Liquori down in a butterfly position, the junior was able to slip the puck past Liquori's out-stretched left leg.
"I thought defensively, as a team, we did a much-better job protecting our goalie tonight," Foley said. "Only allowing 13 shots, our forwards and defensemen really did a good job. When John was tested, he came up with some pretty big saves. You begin to sense now that our whole team is starting to mature, and tonight was kind of a barometer for us. There is some fulfillment that maybe we are getting better."