LOWELL, Mass. – Four years later, they’re getting another chance.
The Wilmington High boys hockey team – state finalists in 2008 – are going back to the TD Garden Sunday after defeating Winthrop, 4-2, in Monday night’s MIAA Division 2 North final at the Tsongas Arena.
Wildcat senior Dalton Rolli broke a 2-2 tie with 2:08 to play, breaking in on goal after a terrific pass from junior line-mate Cam Owens from the red line. Rolli sped past Winthrop’s last defenseman and went backhand past Viking senior goalie Steven Waites.
The Vikings (15-7-2) pulled Waites with 1:20 to play after senior Chris Leblanc got a couple good shots on Wilmington sophomore goaltender Drew Foley. But Wildcat sophomore Brendan McDonough had the last laugh, scoring on the empty net with 1:08 to play, also assisted by Owens.
Wilmington head coach Steve Scanlon said getting Owens – the team’s leading scorer I the regular season – room to operate and create plays was imperative to his team’s third period play.
“I thought they did a good job on him early, banging him around every time he touched the puck,” Scanlon said. “We just tried to get him to focus more on shooting the puck and moving the puck.”
For Rolli, it was the biggest moment in a long career for the high-scoring duo.
“I moved here in the fourth grade, and me and Cam have been playing together since we were in the sixth grade,” Rolli said. “Every time I play with him, it’s electric.”
Wilmington (15-4-5) took its first lead of the final period with 9:05 to play, as junior defenseman Brian Pickett found junior Jake Rogers streaking down the left wing. Rogers cut in and put a backhand behind Waites for the 2-1 lead.
Winthrop came right back, however, as senior Bobby Clewer scored just 28 seconds later. Senior Mitch Paulson ringed the far post with a wrist shot from the left face-off circle, but Clewer was right there to finish off the rebound.
“I thought the character of our team came out – we answered the bell right away,” Viking head coach Dale Dunbar said.
Winthrop had its best chance to go ahead with 2:45 to play, as Clewer set up senior Drayton Chasteen for a 10-foot shot to Foley’s left. Foley made the stop, and 37 seconds later, the Wildcats were ahead for good.
Despite being out-shot 10-6 in the first period, Winthrop went into the locker room with a 1-0 lead at the first intermission thanks to a goal by Leblanc. Sophomore Dan Eruzione kept an attempted clearance in the attacking zone and got the puck to Leblanc, who beat a Wildcat defenseman and lifted a backhander past Foley for the 1-0 lead.
The finish, and his performance throughout the night, showed why Leblanc will be missed by Winthrop next season.
“Chris Leblanc’s a real special player,” Dunbar said. “He’s a great leader. He’s a great kid, very well respected. His skill set is very high, and if he continues to commit himself on and off the ice, he can have a nice career in front of him.”
The Wildcats finally broke through at 10:16 of the second. Senior Frank Cerbone’s shot from the point was blocked, but sophomore Luke Foley was in the right spot at the edge of the right circle to shovel the loose puck past Waites.
Wilmington kept up the pressure for the rest of the period, but a couple fine defensive plays by Viking senior Adam Lundberg kept the Wildcats at bay.
Scanlon admitted that Winthrop’s trap gave his team some trouble in the early going.
“It took us a while to unlock it, but once we did, I thought we played pretty good. We got some good chances,” Scanlon said. “Our goal was to get pucks to the net. They hadn’t been scored on the whole tournament.”
Indeed, Waites had gone 160 minutes in the postseason without allowing a goal before Luke Foley struck.
“You don’t get here without goaltending,” Dunbar said. “That’s the position you have to have on the back end, and Waitesy was there for us. He shut the door an awful lot during this (tournament); he hadn’t even given up a goal until this game.”
But it is Wilmington that is moving on to try and get the trophy that eluded its grasp four years ago (the Wildcats lost to Sandwich, 1-0). To do so, they will have to beat a Franklin (19-2-3) team that looked impressive in Sunday’s 5-2 defeat of Mansfield in the Division 2 South championship.
The Panthers played in the Division 2 state championship game last year as well, losing to Wilmington’s arch rival Tewksbury, 2-1.
“I’m sure it left a bad taste in their mouth, and to come back again is quite an accomplishment,” Scanlon said.