MARLBOROUGH, Mass. – It’s no secret that these are desperate times for the St. John's Pioneers.
With the regular season down to a few precious days, St. John's is pulling out all the stops in an effort of convincing the powers that be within the Super 8 tournament selection committee that they should be one of the 10 teams represented later this month.
On Friday night, the 12th ranked Pioneers made a strong case for themselves after grinding out a 4-4 tie against No. 2 BC High at New England Sports Center.
"I'm very pleased with the effort tonight," said St. John's head coach Mike Mead, whose club has now recorded ties in its last four contests "This was a playoff-like game. It gets you tournament-ready and that is what this last week of the season does for us. I think this result will definitely open some eyes. We are a team that is playing very well at the right time of the season. We can control only what we can control. If we are meant to be in the Super 8 then great. But if we're not then we're not."
The Pioneers travel to Coyle-Cassidy Saturday night before hosting Xavier (Conn.) on Monday before wrapping up the regular season Wednesday at Xaverian.
St. John's (9-4-6), which is still postseason bound (Division 1 North tournament) even if the Super 8 does not come calling, knows it probably should have came away victorious on Friday.
Kevin Quinlivan's rebound score coming at 13:08 of the third period pushed the Pioneers in front, 4-3. With a little more than a minute to go, the Eagles pulled goaltender Brandon Payzant for the extra attacker. It paid off. With only 58 seconds remaining, junior Pat Kramer blasted a shot from just inside the blue line. The puck appeared to tip off the stick of teammate Tim Larocque and sneak through the leg pads of Pioneer goalie Mario Pizzeri for the equalizer.
Officials credited Kramer with the goal but Larocque had positioned perfectly in front of Pizzeri to redirect the shot.
Throughout the course of this contest, BC High (12-1-4) held a distinctive edge offensively, out-shooting St. John's 38-21. But due to Pizzeri's performance, the Eagles were not able to pull away.
"They did a better job taking care of the puck then we did," BC High head coach John Flaherty said. "We had more chances but we didn't capitalize. Mario is a very good goalie and we knew that coming in. We knew that team would come ready to work because they need to. They know what is at stake for them. We knew that and shame on us for not responding. I'm happy that we pulled the tie out but what led up to that needs to be fixed."
Every time BC High took the lead, St. John's always seemed to have an answer. The Eagles went up first at 7:33 of the opening frame after Larocque sent a saucer pass over to Aidan Foley in front of the St. John's crease. The senior flipped a shot over Pizzeri's left shoulder giving his club a 1-0 lead.
At times, the Pioneers appeared to be puck watching instead of attacking the Eagles once they moved inside the offensive zone. However, Pizzeri (34 saves) was there to bail his club out on numerous occasions.
With just over two minutes remaining in the opening period, St. John's finally started getting its offense to click. Garrett Lehan, skating inside the Eagle zone, let go of a shot that caromed off of Payzant's pads. Alertly, junior forward Dan Barlok was positioned perfectly to pick up the rebound and send it into the net, knotting the game at 1-1 heading into the first intermission.
BC High, a 5-2 winner over St. John's back on Jan. 29, continued its offensive prowess for much of the middle period. The objective was simple enough – shoot as many pucks towards Pizzeri as possible and try to create traffic in front. The Eagles did just that but could not get anything past the senior.
"That was one of the most enjoyable games that I've ever played in," Pizzeri said. "I think we are a different team than the first time we played them. Our goal coming into this game was to make a statement and show the rest of the state that we deserve to be in the Super 8 tournament. I think tonight we did just that."
At the 9:39 mark, and with St. John's short a man after a too many men on the ice penalty, BC High regained the lead following a blast by Kramer's from the perimeter. However, the Pioneers late period magic would arise once again.
Off an errant shot that landed behind the Eagles net, Payzant went back to retrieve it, unknowing to him, that a pair of St. John's forwards were closing in on him fast. After losing control of the puck, the sophomore tried in vain to retreat back inside his crease. But he was a little late in doing so as Mike McGillicuddy was able to lift a backhand an open left side of the net at 12:14 to even things at 2-2.
For as much offensive output that BC High was demonstrating throughout, the only thing that mattered was the scoreboard. The Pioneers knew they were being out-played, particularly inside the defensive zone. But heading into the locker room deadlocked after 30 minutes certainly had to be a confidence booster.
That feeling didn't last long though. Just 37 seconds into the third, forward Steve DeForge muscled his way between two St. John's defenders and, with bouncing puck dancing on his stick, he managed to tuck a shot underneath Pizzeri's right arm and give the lead back to the Eagles 3-2. Things remained that way until Quinlivan's rebound tally midway through the period. A few moments later, St. John's let a golden opportunity to pad the lead slip through its fingers after Barlok broke in alone on Payzant (17 saves).
Aiming for the left side the net, the junior's hard wrist shot, instead, rang off the left post. As fate would have it. That missed chance would come back to haunt the Pioneers once BC High came back to tie the game in the waning seconds to no fault of Pizzeri.
"As I've said before, Mario does everything he can for us," said Mead. "He's a great leader. We aren't going to win many games 8-0. We're going to win games 3-2, 4-3, et cetera. It all starts on how Mario plays for us.”