CANTON, Mass. -- Tony Amonte, the third-year boys’ hockey coach at Thayer Academy, likes to offer up comparisons between the ISL's Keller Division to that of the Southeastern Conference in football. Both present major challenges and nothing ever comes easy.
Friday night, Amonte's Tigers learned that lesson all to well. After jumping out to a four-goal lead, Thayer watched in vain as divisional foe St. Sebastian's mounted a flurry to close to within a goal. But the Tigers had enough ammunition in the end to withstand the onslaught and pull out 6-3 victory in the 17th annual Arthur T. Valicenti Cup game at the Sportsplex.
"In high school hockey there are no guarantees,'' said Amonte, his team improving to 13-3-0. "There are so many swings and ups and downs in every game. St. Sebastian's always brings it and we didn't expect any less than that. In this league every game is battle. You lose one and you could be out of a championship. It's that important every game and it's the team that can maintain that level that always wins the league every year."
Fresh off a loss to St. Paul's School only 24 hours earlier, no one could blame Thayer if they began this tilt a bit flat. But it was quite the opposite. The Tigers opened strong, controlling the opening 18 minutes by working the puck inside the Arrows' zone and keeping St. Sebastian's out of theirs.
For its reward, Thayer scored three times in span of 4:32 during the opening stanza.
Defenseman Steve Cochrane got things started by ripping a shot just a few feet in front of his blue line to give the Tigers a 1-0 lead at 4:20. Less than two minutes later, Kyle Peterson, another defenseman, wristed a rebound to an open right side of the net to make it a two-goal advantage. Thayer had no intentions of slowing down. Catching St. Sebastian's back on its heels a bit, the Tigers continued to instigate their quick up-the-ice strategy. Forward Lincoln Griffin made it a 3-0 game with a re-direct in front of Arrows goaltender Teddy Loughborough (20 saves), coming at 8:52.
The momentum Thayer had enjoyed during the opening frame carried into the second period. At 8:18, Neil Conway scored on a spin-around just to the right of Loughborough, upping the lead to 4-0. With their backs pushed firmly against the wall, the Arrows had a choice to make. They could either wave the towel or come back fighting. They chose the latter and, as a result, made things quite interesting.
"We did not play a good first period," Arrows coach Sean McCann said. "They were all over us and we couldn't do the things we wanted to do. We struggled moving the puck and just couldn't connect the dots going up the ice. In the second period we started to get some momentum and were making better decisions with the puck."
St. Sebastian's caught a huge break after a pair of TIgers were sent to the penalty box, giving them a 5-on-3 power play for 54 seconds. Working the puck inside Thayer's end, the Arrows sent two hard shots towards Tigers netminder Bob McGovern. The second one deflected off of McGovern's leg pad and out to junior forward Will D'Orsi, who quickly flipped a shot just under the crossbar at 13:55, putting the Arrows on the board.
"For a team as young as we are I think this was a great thing to battle like we did and compete the way we did," added McCann, whose team falls to 6-9-1 after starting the year 5-1-1. "We are a team that has to learn a lot. We have a lot of young kids playing crucial minutes for us. It's a good learning experience but I hate to use that term because nobody wants to hear about learning experiences, these kids want to win."
With time winding down in the middle frame, St. Sebastian's capitalize on a Thayer mental breakdown. With the Tigers trying to score another goal before intermission, they forgot to play defense. That allowed senior forward Corey Ronan to break out through the neutral zone and remain a full-step ahead of the defense. Skating in alone on McGovern, who opted to stay in the crease instead of coming out to challenge the puck-handler, Ronan was able to slip a shot past the senior just before the horn sounded and send the Arrows into the second intermission down by only two.
"We had a good first period," said Amonte, who played at Thayer in the late 1980s, prior to spending 16 solid seasons in the NHL. "There was a bit of lull in the second period. There was a coaching error on their second goal. We were thinking offense in the final seconds of the period when we should've been thinking protect that three-goal lead. But you are always looking for more. The way I coach, you really don't think about defense because I played forward and you are always thinking about getting that next goal.
“They made a great play and Corey Ronan is a tremendously fast player and made a great move. We also know you can't get into the box against good teams like St. Sebastian's. You have to be discipline, especially when you are already on the penalty kill and then you take another penalty. That's what hurts you."
Realizing it was now back in the hunt, St. Sebastian's drew a bit closer only a few minutes into the third. Nick Flanagan found the back of the net to cut the deficit to 4-3 at 11:01.
Suddenly, everything Thayer had built early on was now in jeopardy. Momentum had clearly shifted over to the side of the Arrows. Following Flanagan's marker, McGovern managed to fend off a couple more on-line assaults from St. Sebastian's.
But for how long?
"Our team has a good mixture of skill and work ethic," McGovern said. "Last year I don't think we won a game by more than two goals so we were dialed in the whole 54 minutes. This year we have been able to run away with some games so it is actually good for us to be in a tight game like this right up to the very end. Games like this will only help us."
The Tigers were then skating around in desperation mode, attempting to rediscover their scoring edge.
At 14:38, sophomore Christian Simeone provided it. The forward scored off a rebound to give the Tigers a little breathing space. Then, with a little less than three minutes remaining, Griffin sealed this one up with his second goal, slipping a shot between Loughborough's leg pads just before colliding with the senior. Officials awarded the goal to Griffin, stating the puck had crossed the goal line before there was impact.
"St. Sebastian's had a lot of momentum in the third period so we knew we needed to come back strong and finish," said Griffin. "The second period was probably our worst period by far. We knew we had to stick to our game plan, work hard and finish off checks. Once we started doing that again, we knew it would work out for us."