BUZZARDS BAY, Mass. – It seemed like an add-on to a rout, but Kyle Leslie’s early third-period goal — the Braintree forward’s second of the game — was an important one.
But, at the time, its significance wasn’t lost on Wamps head coach Dave Fasano either.
“Looking back on it, I had said that’s probably the one that’s going to get us over the hump.”
Braintree carried a 4-1 lead into the third period of Sunday’s Division 1 South sectional championship game against Barnstable at Gallo Ice Arena.
That’s when Leslie tipped in his second of the game, collecting a loose puck played from the point by defenseman Kevin Howard. After a furious comeback of three straight goals, including two on the power play, the Red Raiders made for a dramatic finish, but fell short in a 5-4 final.
The Wamps advance to their first state Division 1 final, after having played in three sectional championship games in the last decade. They will face the winner of Monday’s North final between Reading and Wilmington.
Braintree (16-5-3) sought to push the issue, playing an aggressive forecheck throughout. It yielded immediate benefits, as the Wamps ran out to a 2-0 lead by the 7:43 mark of the first on goals by Gino LaRossa and Brian Gallagher. Leslie (2 G, 1 A) potted his first goal of the game before the period was out, with a helper from Gallagher, and Braintree took a 3-0 lead to the room.
The Red Raiders (15-6-3) broke up Nick Anson’s shutout bid at 1:32 of the second on a Cody Pasic (1 G, 1 A) wrist shot. However, the Wamps reestablished their three-goal cushion at 8:11 on a Nick Ward goal, with Gallagher (1G, 2A) on the primary assist.
“The thing we talked about after the third period was that we couldn’t go into a shell,” Fasano said. “Barnstable, all year long and if you saw the last three tournament games they’ve played … they don’t quit. They’re going to come at us, but we can’t go into a shell.
“Even when we were up three, we knew that Barnstable was going to throw everything at us because they’ve never quit all year long.”
Braintree seemed to put the game out of reach 32 seconds into the third. Howard lobbed a wrister over the diving shot-blocking attempt of a Barnstable forward. With the puck in the slot, Leslie adjusted and beat Red Raiders back up goaltender Jake Kaczynski short side.
Then the Red Raiders came alive. Mike McDonough set off a chain reaction of three straight Barnstable goals at 2:48, before scoring back-to-back power-play goals 11:21 and 12:24. Chris Fowler’s slapper got the Red Raiders within two, before setting up Cam Curtin’s tally on the man-advantage with the goaltender pulled.
“I thought we played extremely well for two periods, but our start killed us," Red Raiders head coach Scott Nickerson said. "We just ran out of time. They did a lot of things well against us. It would have been a remarkable comeback had we finished it off.”
Tough call: Nickerson elected to pull senior starting goaltender Kevin Huska to start the second period, after allowing three first-period goals, in favor of Kaczynski, a junior.
“Kevin Huska’s been our backbone for two years,” Nickerson said. “At that point, I felt like after giving up three, it was time to make a change. It’s a tough decision to pull a senior in his last game. But it was something we had to do.”
The move seemed to give Barnstable an immediate boost. After Pasic’s goal, on the other end of the sheet, Kaczynski kicked out a Gallagher shot from point blank range.
The incumbent to take Huska’s spot next season, Kaczynski battled to keep the Red Raiders in the game, which was also a swan song for one of the state’s more talented netminders in the last two years.
“To his credit, I’ve never been around who’s so positive and so uplifting after he comes out,” Nickerson said of Huska. “When Kaczynski made that save, you could hear Kevin pounding on the boards with his hand, trying to keep everybody going.”
Net gain?: Aside from having to refocus after its play-in game loss to Catholic Memorial, Braintree also had to face the South sectional tournament without the services of one of its top defensemen, junior Sean Casey, who was injured in the preliminary round game.
With that, Fasano has shortened his bench to five defenseman.
But even down a man, and an attempted third-period comeback aside, the Wamps defensive corps has been a major driving force behind their Garden push.
“That was a huge loss, he’s so good,” senior captain Joe Harrington said of Casey. “But our defenseman, no discredit to our forwards, we’ve been great defensively all year. John Elworthy’s really stepped in, Erik MacDonald’s given us good minutes, and [James] Flaherty and Howard have been doing it for a few years now. We just know it’s another day at the office for us.”