ASHBURNHAM, Mass. -- When Dexter senior forward Bryan Green powered a shot from the left circle past Joey Daccord, Cushing Academy's outstanding goalkeeper, at the 7 minute mark of the first period no one thought much of it.
Oh sure, Dexter had drawn first blood, but most inside Iorio Arena felt it was just a prelude of things to come between these two high-powered, well-skilled combatants.
But Nick Lanni had other ideas. The Dexter senior netminder was nothing short of magnificent during Wednesday's quarterfinal round of the Stuart/Corkery (Elite 8) Tournament. The Watertown native withstood a plethora of offensive attacks by the Penguins, never once wincing, in lifting Dexter to a thrilling 1-0 triumph.
"I was getting a lot of help from my defense today," said Lanni, finishing with 39 saves -- several of which were of the masterful variety. "When you are playing against the best line in prep hockey of (David) Cotton, (Jake) Simons and (Bailey) Conger, the defense and our forwards did an unbelievable job getting sticks on pucks and protected me all game long in front of the net. This is a big moment in our school's history to get that first ever (Elite 8) victory. Now we have six more periods to go from here."
Dexter, seeded seventh, improves to 19-4-5, having now gone 12-0-4 in its last 16 games. They will travel to No. 6 Gunnery (a 6-1 winner over Nobles) for Saturday's semifinal bout at a time to be determined.
Last year, Dexter reached the finals of the Piatelli/Simmons Small School Championship before falling to Kimball Union Academy. No. 2 Cushing closes its fine campaign 26-4-4.
When these two prep powers met back in early December, they played to a 2-2 standstill.
"They are certainly a high-flying offense," said Dexter head coach Dan Donato of Cushing. "We were well aware of that coming in. They have a great transition and come after you hard on the rush. They like to bring up their weak side defenseman and they really get after you. We did a couple of drills in practice this week to try and eliminate that and, for the most part, I thought by in large we did a pretty good job. I couldn't be any more prouder of this team. They have really come together as a unit."
Donato said he spoke openly with his second and third line forwards and centers during Tuesday's practice, telling them to assume that first line leading scorer Ryan Donato (51 points) would be shutdown by the Penguins defense and how important it was for all of them to step up their respective games.
"I told them let's plan on Ryan doing nothing and lets make sure that one of those six comes up with something for us and as a result, Bryan Green gets a huge goal for us," Donato said. "As for Nick, he makes big saves look somewhat routine because he is a great athlete and is always in a great athletic position. On occasion we will get exposed but Nick has been right there making big save after save. Without Nick we wouldn't be standing here right now."
After Green's tally (his 10th goal of the season), Dexter had difficulty continuing its offensive rhythm. Much of that had to do with Cushing's swarming defensive pressure which refused to allow Dexter much space to breath. For the remainder of the opening period, it was the Penguins who started to make some offensive headway. But Lanni literally became a concrete barrier between the pipes, allowing nothing past him.
Over the course of the middle frame, Cushing continued to dictate the offensive tempo. Cycling the puck around the zone, the Penguins had ample opportunities to score, putting up 14 shots in the process on Lanni during the period. But none crossed the goal line, adding to Cushing's already rising frustration level.
"Personally I thought we carried the play for much of the game," Penguins head coach Rob Gagnon said. "We had a lot of good chances but their goalie was terrific as ours was. Their goalie happened to come up with one more save than ours. It was a well-played game by our team but we just couldn't find the net."
Having registered 13 shots over the first 36 minutes, Dexter, when it wasn't dumping the puck into the offensive zone in an attempt to eat up valuable time, began to open things up a bit in the third. Early on, it was they who became the aggressors on offense, putting forth several shots on Daccord (24 saves) but came away empty. At the 6:40 mark, Dexter had a chance to extend the lead after a 2 on 1 break developed.
However, Daccord, who is committed to Arizona State next season, came out of his crease to cut off the angle and stoned Patrick Daly's hard wrist shot.
That play sparked some added life into Cushing's arsenal. Suddenly, it was the Penguins who were pushing the puck expeditiously down the ice, shooting from all points in an attempt to notch the equalizer. Cushing finished the frame with eight shots yet the scenario remained the same with Lanni, albeit exhausted at game's end, coming through with stop after stop to silence the Penguins who, for the second time in as many years, lost in the quarterfinal round. Last year they were on the short end of a double-overtime heartbreaker to eventual champ Salisbury School.
"We did a lot of things well today," said Gagnon. "We kept Donato off the score sheet. We executed our game plan and did everything we could except score. We got good goaltending when we needed it but their goalie countered and made several big saves too. Sometimes you eat the bear and other days the bear eats you. I told our kids they should walk out of here disappointed but not ashamed because they competed really hard today."