SAUGUS, Mass. -- For 30 minutes, two-thirds through their heavyweight bout with Saugus, the Danvers Falcons appeared poised to put a stranglehold on the Northeastern North crown. Kevin Brown's Falcons swarmed Saugus netminder Nicholas Hegarty, badly outshooting and outhustling Jeff Natalucci's Sachems at Kasabuski Arena.
In fact, Hegarty and Saige Tait's slick breakaway goal in the first period were the only reasons why the Sachems were deadlocked, 1-1, heading into the final 15 minutes. And that's when the Sachems flipped the switch, finding an extra gear and potting three unanswered goals behind Danvers goaltender Seth Kamens to take a 4-1 victory before their home crowd.
The Sachems' victory left the Northeastern North standings a dead heat between Danvers (12-4-0, 10-3-0), Saugus (10-5-2, 9-2-2), and Winthrop (10-5-2, 9-2-2), all on 20 points heading into the season's home stretch. It was also the Sachems' first win over Danvers in three tries this season.
"That's what we've been waiting for, that third period," said Natalucci afterward. "We needed to just outwork them. You know what you're going to get when you face them. They're going to work for 45 minutes, and we needed to outwork them for 15. And that's what we did. That was huge for us."
For Danvers, it was an opportunity lost, as the Falcons have now lost two straight after a torrid 10-game winning streak that vaulted them to the top of the standings.
"We're just playing good enough, and you can't play good enough to win," Brown said. "You've got to be better than good. And come down the stretch, against quality teams. You've got to play great. And we didn't play great. We only played good."
Asked if he felt the game was one that got away, Brown replied: "I don't think it got away. It went their way. Credit them. They found a way to get it done, and we didn't."
In the opening period, though, the Falcons did play great, consistently outworking the Sachems and pelting shots at Hegarty. The senior netminder was up to the task, blunting several quality Danvers bids.
"He's a big kid, he covers a lot of the net," Natalucci said. "When he comes out and challenges (the shooter), he's tough to beat."
Saugus got its break at the 7:56 mark of the first. Sachem defenseman Nick Sweeney poked the puck to Tait, who broke in alone on Kamen before calmly firing his shot 5-hole to give Saugus a 1-0 lead on its second shot of the night.
"It was a spark for the team," Tait said. "We needed something to happen, and finally the chance came."
Danvers' Joe Strangie narrowly missed knotting the game moments later, but he scuffed his backdoor bid at the left post, sending the puck just wide on the Saugus net.
"It comes down to opportunities," Brown said. "You play a high school game, it's only 45 minutes. The opportunities are few and far between. They took advantage of them, and we didn't."
However, Danvers held an 11-3 shot advantage after the first 15, and finally tied the game at 4:07 of the middle stanza. After Paul D'Orlando kept the puck in play by the right face-off dot, Jay Calcagno got off a quick snap shot that beat Hegarty short side, glancing off the right post and into the net.
Danvers kept the pressure on, and Hegarty had to come up big on Kevin Hodgkins backhand bid, flashing out the left pad to keep the puck out of the net. The Falcons third line of Calcagno, D'Orlando and Hodgins were flying, but the Sachems kept throwing bodies in front of shots, and pucks that did get through kept hitting Hegarty.
With 10 minutes to go in the third, the Sachems went on a power play, and cashed in. Drew Oxley ripped a shot fro the point that Kamens stopped but couldn't control. Tait drove the net, and after taking two whacks at the puck, buried it past Kamens on his third attempt for a 2-1 Saugus lead at 6:28.
For Danvers, the walls caved in during an 11-second stretch four minutes later. Christopher Sanderson was Johnny on the Spot when Kamens deposited a gift on the goal line. Saugus 's Guy Carpillo snapped a shot that Kamens appeared to have cleanly in his glove, but the puck slipped out and knuckled over his shoulder, landing behind him. The opportunistic Sanderson wasted no time tapping it into the open net.
Eleven seconds later, Saugus converted on a terrific 2-on-1, when Kurt Rodrigues drove hard down the left wing before scorching a pass across the crease, which Anthony Cieri slipped under Kamens for the 4-1 final.
"The last couple of practices, we've been going really hard, and we showed it out there," Tait said. "We've just got to keep up what we've been doing, and hopefully make a run. We'll build off this game, and keep going."
His coach agreed. "We knew, down low, it was going to be real difficult to get shots, and it was all about second effort down there. That's what we did," said Natalucci. "Saige's goal on the power play was second effort. The third goal was second effort. We had to drive the net. They make it difficult."
"We knew in the last 15 minutes we were going to have to outwork them if we were going to win this hockey game tonight, and we did," he said. "We battled, all night. I've got a lot of seniors in there, and they knew if we wanted a shot at the conference, we needed two (points). If we want a shot at the conference, we needed this one."
Danvers could take some consolation in outshooting the Sachems, 26-12, and knowing that they carried the play for the majority of the game. But to make a difference in the post-season, they'll have to finish as well as they start.
"The message is we. We stick together. We do it together," said Brown. "We'll get back to where we need to be. We'll get back on track. We're a good hockey team. We've done good things all year long. We know we can attain those things."