BELMONT, Mass. -- Once the final horn sounded, it wasn't so much a celebration as it was a sigh of relief for Belmont Hill.
The Hillies, somehow, someway, managed to withstand a tenacious flurry put forth by Thayer during the closing minutes of Saturday's semifinal round of the Martin/Earl Large School tournament to prevail 5-4 at the Jordan Athletic Center.
Counting their blessings upon exiting the ice, No. 4 Belmont Hill (17-6-8) advances to the title game at St. Anselm College's Sullivan Ice Arena on Sunday (2:30 p.m.) where it will face No. 3 Brooks (a 4-3 overtime victor over Choate). The Hillies defeated Brooks, 4-0, back on Feb. 27. Belmont Hill last won a New England Prep title in 1990.
Make no mistake about it, the Hillies needed to every second of regulation time to pull this one out.
The eighth-seeded Tigers, fresh off a victory over top-seed Brunswick on Wednesday, gave Belmont Hill fits throughout. Having lost to the Hillies twice during the regular season, Thayer was determined not to make it a third straight.
Jumping out to a 2-1 lead after one period, Thayer (15-12-3) appeared primed for another upset. After a roller coaster season in which they stood just one game over .500 in mid-February, the Tigers began to peak towards the end of the season and carried that momentum into the playoffs.
Belmont Hill knew this as well, and made conscious effort to try and slow down its ISL rivals. Just 20 seconds into the second period, things started going the Hillies way. Sam Helsler, a forward, blazed down the left side and fired a shot which sailed past Tigers goaltender Mike Royer into the low right corner of the net to even this tilt 2-2. Hesler's tally was the first of three for him on the afternoon.
"I think I just got a few lucky bounces," said a humbled Hesler, who hails from Boxborough. "This was just a good team win. This game was really intense throughout. Thayer is a very good team and are really well-coached. We had beaten them twice during the season but to beat them three times, we knew that would be a huge challenge but I think we were really prepared coming into it."
Play resumed following Hesler's score with each club getting some quality chances on net but to no avail. However, that would change midway through the frame. At 10:09, with the Tigers swarming the Hillies net, senior Lincoln Griffin was able to corral a loose puck in front and slip it past Belmont Hill netminder Matt Barrow (24 saves) to give the lead back to Thayer at 3-2.
Four minutes would pass before Hesler was back at it again. Standing just inside his own blue line, the sophomore flipped a shot towards Royer (26 saves) that took an awkward bounce off of his left pad and into the net knotting things at 3-apiece heading into the final frame.
Less than three minutes into the third, Belmont Hill would claim the lead for good. Hesler, positioned along the left half wall inside Thayer's zone, saw Royer attempting to scamper back to the front of his crease after sweeping the puck along the boards. Before Royer could reach his spot, Hesler fired a shot into the open net giving the Hillies a 4-3 advantage. Ten minutes later, Belmont Hill would extend its lead to two goals. A well-executed tic-tac-toe ensemble by Evan Daddario, Christian O'Neill and Charlie Michalowski was capped with Michalowski sending a quick wrist shot into an open left side of the net.
"I was really proud of some of the team decisions we made," said Hillies head coach Jeremiah McCarthy. "As the game went along I thought we started winning more of the battles. Certainly in the first half of the game, Thayer got the better of us. But as the game wore along I thought our boys continued to stay positive and played strong. At the end, Thayer had some chances to tie the game but fortunately they stayed out of the back of the net."
In spite of the deficit, the Tigers had zero intentions of letting the Hillies walk out of this one cleanly. Just two minutes after Michalowski's marker, his second of the game, Griffin, with his team playing shorthanded, brought Thayer back.
The Walpole native and future Northeastern Huskie swiped the puck away from defenseman Charlie Barrow at center ice and bolted in all alone on Matt Barrow. Griffin, who also registered a hat trick on the day, beat the junior low side (his 28th of the season) to make it a one goal affair.
"Thayer has some special players and Lincoln Griffin is an extraordinary player," McCarthy said. "We tried to have an antidote for him but he got us a few times. Thayer came out very prepared today. They did so many things right. I actually feel a little guilty being the winning team because of how well and how hard that team competed against us. (Head coach) Tony (Amonte) does a great job and they are a team that no one wants to play. We will take this win and run with it because I felt Thayer had equal, if not better, rights to play in the championship tomorrow. They certainly played well enough to win."
For the remainder of the period, which felt like an eternity for Belmont Hill and its huge throng of fans on hand, it was white knuckle time. The Tigers continued to maintain a strong presence inside the Hillies zone, setting up a multitude of opportunities in its quest for the equalizer. In the process, though, Hesler was able to show his versatility as being not only an offensive standout, but a defensive specialist as well. Hesler got in front of a pair of hard shots in the final minute, blocking both. When he wasn't doing it, the burden fell on Matt Barrow's shoulders, who was exceptional down the stretch after making some big-time stops.
"Matt has been solid for us all season and we certainly needed him today," Hesler said. "At the start of the year this team was really young and made some mistakes. But a lot of the guys have now matured and I really think we are coming together at the right time."
The Tigers wasted no time striking first, scoring just 39 seconds in. Kyle Peterson, situated alone inside the left circle, ripped a shot under Barrow's right arm. But Michalowski, from West Roxbury, knotted things at 1-1 later in the period after taking a behind the net pass from Charlie McConnell and sending a one-timer past Royer. But less than a minute had gone by before Thayer moved back out in front. With a mad scramble taking place in front of the Hillies goal, Griffin found the loose puck and was able to poke it over the goal line. The Tigers dictated much of the tempo during the opening period but as things transpired, they started to lose their grip and allowed Belmont Hill to take control.
"Ever since I've come back to Thayer (in 2010) our motto has been to work hard and usually good things will happen," said Tony Amonte. "But today we were on the wrong side of a few bounces and that is how things go. We are proud of our effort today and proud of our kids from all this season and we wish our four seniors all the best in the future. Obviously, losing Lincoln will be a huge hole for us to fill but that just means opportunities for other guys to step up. It always hurts to lose, especially at the end of the year, but we'll get over it and move on and be ready to go next year."
NEPSAC Finals Set: Following a series of semifinals held Saturday, the finals for the NEPSAC championships have been determined.
In the Piatelli/Simmons Small School final, No. 1 St. Mark's will play No. 3 Westminster at noon. Belmont Hill and Brooks will follow at 2:30. In the Stuart/Corkery (Elite 8) contest, No. 5 Salisbury (winners of the last two Elite 8 crowns) takes on No. 7 Dexter at 5 p.m.