READING, Mass. - When it came to getting ready for postseason play, the first, second and third items on the list for the Acton-Boxborough girls squad were all about special teams. That work and preparation came through in a big way in Saturday's night's first round matchup against Reading.
The 11th-seeded Colonials scored two power play goals, added a shorthanded tally, and then killed off a huge power play in the final two minutes to hang on for a 3-2 victory over No. 6 Reading at Burbank Arena.
Leah Carderelli led the way with a goal and two assists, Kaitlin Hoang had a goal and an assist, Megan Barrett had the short-handed mark and defenseman Annie Messuri dished out two helpers. Acton-Boxborough (15-6-2) will face a familiar foe in Wednesday's quarterfinal when they take on MVC/DCL rival and No 3 seed Westford Academy.
"Our penalty kill has been tremendous all season long," praised A-B coach Brian Fontas. "We do a great job of keeping the puck to the outside, tremendous effort and battle, they just worked so hard back there. We really take a lot of pride in our penalty kill. We work hard back there and it paid off tonight."
"My assistant coach Jeff Vaughn spends a lot of time on the power play and penalty kill," he continued. "We work on it a lot and I just know in the tournament its going to come down to power plays, penalty kills, special teams. We came through big tonight."
Penalties reared up early for the Rockets (14-5-2), who were called for five in the first period alone and got stuck defending a pair of five-on-three situations. A-B (15-6-2) cashed in on both, getting on the board first as Messuri fired the puck toward the crease and Hoang jammed it home at 2:50.
Carderelli normally mans the point when the Colonials have the extra skater, but during another two-man advantage in the final minute of the first, the sophomore moved down low in a wrinkle installed by Vaughn just a couple days ago. The move worked as Messuri fired off another blast and Carderelli was in position to stick the rebound at the far post.
"On our power play, I'm usually up top and I just try and get the puck to our other players so they can shoot and if there's an open shot I take it," Carderelli explained. "We did a different play on the [second five-on-three] power play, we just learned it the other day in practice so I was kind of nervous but once Annie [Messuri] took the shot, I saw the rebound and I just went in and got the puck."
Freshman standouts Ali O'Leary and Caroline Seibold teamed up to get Reading back in the game. While still killing off the remaining penalty after the Colonials goal, Seibold sprung O'Leary loose for a breakaway. A-B goalie Cali Loblundo (18 saves) made the initial stop, but O'Leary followed the rebound and put it right back with 12 seconds to go.
Acton found itself killing penalties more often in the second but produced another big play as Carderelli sent a perfect pass up to Barrett, who got the puck in stride while streaking through the middle of the ice. The freshman walked in and a made a nifty move to her backhand for the finish and a 3-1 A-B advantage.
Reading turned up the heat in the third, producing its best period of the night and finally breaking through as Stephanie Cohen corralled a long rebound of an O'Leary shot and sent it right back into an open net with 4:42 remaining in the game.
That would be all they would manage, however, as Messuri and the Colonials defense blocked several shots and clogged up the middle and Loblundo handled anything that got through. Despite being shorthanded, A-B did not allow a shot through to Loblundo over the final 1:25.
"[Coach Fontas] had said on the bench to block shots so everyone was diving for shots, doing everything they could to block everything in front of the net," described Messuri. "In the beginning we started doing a high forward where we would have one high forward up and the defensemen could pinch. As we were up 3-2 at the end, we had the third forward stay on the blue line and play defense for the rest of the game."
ROCKETING BACK TO RELEVANCE
Make no mistake about it - Reading is going to be a team to keep an eye for the next several years. After missing the postseason the last two seasons and winning just three games a year ago, the Rockets made a stunning turnaround and emerged as one of the state's top teams in 2012-13.
Four immensely talented freshmen - forwards Ali O'Leary and Tori Grimmer, defenseman Caroline Seibold and goalie Kayla St. Pierre - were at the heart of it. O'Leary proved herself to be among the state's elite scorers with 30 goals and 18 assists, while Grimmer and Seibold were second and third on the team in points. St. Pierre pitched five shutouts and finished with a goals against average well under 2.00.
The transformation could not have happened, however, without the leadership and all-around good nature of the Rockets veteran players. Senior captains Heather Toussaint and Delaney Albert, along with junior captain Sarah Hart and the rest of the upperclassmen - many of whom were losing playing time - helped smooth the way for those freshmen to feel comfortable about coming and doing their thing.
"It was a nice blend where we had very welcoming seniors that knew what was coming because they skated together in the summer," Reading coach Mike Golden said. "We had high expectations and I think we actually exceeded a little bit on our expectations. No one really knew how dynamic Ali was until she got here and Seibold is terrific on defense. The girls were great, they were receptive. Even the kids who had played regular shifts last year knew they were here and they had to play."
"We're going to be good next year but I'm really going to miss this team because it was all a year of firsts," Golden added. "Turning the thing around, winning games, competing for the Middlesex League, excitement going into states...we could have as easily lost this game today as reached the finals. It was a blast. it was a fun year and the kids made it fun.
"I told them my wife thinks I'm insane because I'm running down here six days a week but I said, 'If she got to spend three hours a day with you guys, she'd understand and appreciate why I look forward to coming here every day.' They're just a great group of kids."