STONEHAM, Mass. -- In victory or defeat, the protocol remains the same. Whether Austin Prep wins or loses, head coach Louis Finocchiaro always takes his stance just outside the team dressing room, offering words of wisdom and encouragement to each team member as they pass by making their way toward the exits.
Saturday night was no different. On this particular evening, Finocchiaro was handing out compliments as if it was candy. And why not? The Cougars had just upended Catholic Central Large Divisional nemesis Arlington Catholic, 4-2, inside Stoneham Arena to take sole possession of first place in the conference.
AP out-played the visiting Cougars over the final 30 minutes, rallying back from a one-goal deficit by scoring three times in the third to improve to 7-1 overall and 4-0 in the CCL.
The entire momentum of this tilt took a shift AP's way at the start of the middle frame and never left. In the second, the host Cougars fired 15 shots on AC netminder Matt Anderson. However, none found their way past the sophomore, who finished the evening with 29 saves. His efforts alone allowed AC (5-1-2, 3-1-1) to hold onto its slim 2-1 advantage going into the second intermission.
"I was most impressed with our willingness not to lose," Finocchiaro said. "We had an enormous second period but we were still down. Our kids never packed it in. They had the will to not quit and that is important. We want to build off of that. We've got speed and want to utilize our speed. We also want to keep our gaps tight because it eliminates teams from coming after you 100 miles per hour. That's what we work on and it creates turnovers. I thought our effort overall was very good tonight."
Having exasperated a period's worth of energy with nothing to show for it, had AP come out for the final period somewhat dejected, no one would have disputed it. Yet, the Cougars looked to feed off of momentum gained minutes prior and carried it with them into the third.
Just 5:30 into the last frame, an AC turnover inside the neutral zone set up senior defenseman Dan O'Toole to notch the equalizer. AP continued its relentless attack within the AC defensive zone, displaying a physical forechecking style which would lead to AC's inability to control the puck.
As a result, AP would strike again. This time, senior forwards Anthony Cieri and Ryan McDonough broke in on Anderson. With Cieri carrying the puck into the left circle, he fed a crossing pass to wide open McDonough, who promptly whistled a shot past Anderson at 10:09 putting AP ahead to stay at 3-2.
"Our motto all year has been to keep working and dump pucks in," said McDonough. "We weren't worried (after the second intermission) because we knew we were going to score and keep going and we did."
With less than a minute to go, and AC feverishly trying to tie things up, senior John Rogers, controlling the puck along the right half board, tried to backhand a pass across the circles. However the puck found its way into the net left vacated when Anderson was pulled for the extra man, to seal the victory. The goal was credited to AC junior Jake McKenelley, as he was the last AP player to touch the puck for his team.
AC grabbed the lead in the opening period on a pair of power play goals from Cam Geary and Ryan Tierney. Geary, a sophomore, blasted a shot from just inside his own blue line which deflected off of goalie Dylan Regan (12 saves), bouncing behind him and across the goal line at 4:43. Five minutes later, AP tied things up following a turnover in which Kevin Kiley and Louis Finocchiaro skated in on a 2 on 1, with Finocchiaro finishing it off with a shot just past the out-stretched glove of Anderson.
But with just 38 seconds remaining in the frame, and playing with the man advantage, AC received a bit of luck. O'Toole gained control of the puck behind his own net. Looking to dish a pass out towards the middle of the ice, the puck, instead, deflected off of Tierney, positioned just to the left of Regan, and past the freshman goalie, sending AC into the first intermission ahead by a goal. O'Toole would redeem himself two periods later for his mistake.
"It felt good to get that goal," O'Toole said. "It felt we had two fluke goals scored against us but equaling it up in the third and then getting momentum back on our side and being able to net another one was huge. It's big to come back from a deficit against a big rival because they are a team we will probably be going back and forth with the whole season. It's certainly great to get the win that's for sure."
The host Cougars, albeit angry over the late score, played relentless throughout the second period. Passes were crisp and lanes were left open once they reached AC territory. Out of AP's 15 attempts in the frame, several were quality shot, but credit Anderson for his brilliant play between the pipes to keep AC ahead.
That all changed in the decisive final frame as AP, playing without top center Cam Russo who suffered an injury earlier in the week vs. Matignon, took advantage of AC's carelessness with the puck. The end result being three third period goals and a very important regular season triumph.
"They took it to us in the second period but we still managed to hang on at that point," said AC 37-year head coach Dan Shine. "In the second and third periods they were just all over us and we couldn't get possession of the puck. We couldn't make plays and when we made plays we made them to the wrong guys. We made a lot of turnovers in our end of the rink. It came down to who wanted it more and I thought Austin Prep showed they were tougher than we were physically. They were behind and came back to win the game. More power to them."
Having reached the Super 8 tournament final in each of the last two seasons, losing to Malden Catholic both times, questions were raised in regards to AP ability to maintain its high level of play. With the departure of prominent winger Bobo Carpenter (24 goals last year), who's now playing for the Sioux City Musketeers of the USHL, such questions became more enhanced.
But over the first half of this season, AP doesn't look much different than those teams of the past two years. It is a program that continues to stockpile players -- all of whom have proven capable of playing at a high level.
"We have some depth," said Finocchiaro, now in his 12th season here. "Obviously losing a player like Bob would hurt any team but we have a lot of good guys in our program. It's like any year. Every team loses guys but we have others who have stepped up. We are playing well as a team. We also had Russo out but we can't feel sorry for ourselves because of it. With us, it's the next guy up and and we move on. Tonight, as a team, we rose to the occasion."