LOWELL, Mass. -- This was the Central Catholic team we have come to expect.
The Raiders' inability to find the back of the net against Austin Prep in Sunday's 3-0 defeat during Game 1 was no where to be found Thursday evening.
Central Catholic shored up its defense, and most importantly, played with more fluidity on offense, taking control of this contest over the final 30 minutes en route to a 7-4 triumph over the Cougars inside Tsongas Center.
With the win, the sixth-seeded Raiders (16-6-2) force a third and deciding game against No. 3 Austin Prep (20-2-1) on Sunday beginning at noon at a site to be determined. The winner advances to the semifinal round while the loser calls it a season.
"This was more like it," Central Catholic head coach Mike Jankowski said. "Tonight we executed well and we were able to find the back of the net and make plays when we needed to. Our goalie (Patrick Schena) made the stops tonight that he didn't make the other night. He was fantastic. After Sunday, the kids came back to practice business as usual. There is a lot of belief in each other inside that locker room."
Trailing 2-1 after the opening period, the Raiders came out with reckless abandon to begin the middle frame and allowed it to carry through for the remainder of the game. Central Catholic tallied four goals in the period -- two on the power play and one shorthanded -- to put this one in the books.
"We talked about being more aggressive at different times," said Jankowski. "It was a matter of trusting our plays, being aggressive and using our speed. We have great team speed and the kids were able execute that and got some nice goals out of it. We seemed to have gotten that jump back and we are playing well."
For the Cougars, this performance was hardly to be expected. For the majority of this tilt, they were repeatedly beaten to loose pucks, leaving players unattended and turning the puck over with regularity as Central Catholic was solid with its back check.
The Raiders' fortunes turned upbeat to start the period. Just 1:08 in, freshman Cam Gendron, off a give and go with teammate Jake Wise, roofed a shot short side over Austin Prep netminder Dylan Regan to tie the game at 2-2. That was the beginning of a long and dreadful 15 minutes for the Cougars. Later in the period, and playing a man short after Cam O'Neil was whistled for elbowing, Central Catholic moved in front to stay when David Sheehan found Wise all alone in front of the net. The freshman, and Boston University commit, had ample time to collect the puck on his stick and fire a shot past Regan.
Less than two minutes later, it was now Central Catholic's turn to hold the man advantage. With Austin Prep bunched up on the left side of its zone, Raider swingman Christian Thompson stood all by his lonesome inside the right circle. A quick feed from Billy Stahley resulted in Thompson rifling a hard shot into the back of the net to push the Raiders lead out to a pair of goals. Following his shutout performance on Sunday, Regan, a freshman, finished the night with 12 saves.
Only a handful of few minutes later, Central Catholic was back on the powerplay, after a slashing penalty was charged to Ryan McDonough. Gendron, trailing a Raider rush, grabbed control of a loose puck out in front of the Cougars crease and managed to slide it around Regan and across the goal line for this third score of the night.
"It was my first hat trick of my high school career and luckily it came in the Super 8," said Gendron. "We just worked our butts off tonight. I thought we made their goalie a little shaky. We just focused on this one game. Sunday we didn't play very well but we were able to put that behind us and came out and played hard tonight."
Things continued to flourish for the Raiders to begin the third. Catching Austin Prep dozing, Stahley flew down the left side untouched before lifting a backhand shot over Regan's shoulder at 2:29 to make it 6-2. Shortly thereafter, Anthony Cieri got one back for the Cougars but Central Catholic would answer back quickly.
Gendron, controlling the puck along the right boards, found Eric Robbins skating down the center of the ice. The senior took Gendron's pass in stride and beat Regan stick side at 9:04 to put Central Catholic up by four.
Junior Mike Egan scored on the powerplay (his second) in the waning minutes for Austin Prep, but it did little to comfort the Cougars' sorrows.
"They out-played us everywhere tonight," Cougars head coach Louis Finocchiaro said. "They played hard and they played physical. Their backs were against the wall and they played with a lot more intensity than we did. We did a lot of uncharacteristic things in that second period and we lost our composure which we haven't done that all year. We didn't play well as a team. This was the first game we have lost since December 28th, but we have a lot of resilient guys on this team. Now on Sunday, it is a situation where you have to win."
Egan opened the scoring at 6:51 of the first period with a hard shot just in front of Schena (25 saves). Less than a minute later, Gendron notched his first marker, blasting a shot from the right circle as he was left alone by the Cougars defense. With just over four minutes remaining in the period, Austin Prep re-took the lead. Defenseman Ryan Verrier, standing just inside his own blue line, spotted Cam Russo just to the right of Schena. The sophomore whipped a perfect pass onto Russo's stick and the senior forward did the rest, lifting a shot over junior goalie to send the Cougars into the first intermission on top by a goal.