SPRINGFIELD -- This Hockey Night of the Crusaders produced a freshman hero, a state championship, an undefeated season and sweet revenge.
Groton-Dunstable's 4-3 victory over South Hadley in the MIAA Division 3A state championship game before a crowd of 2,067 last night at the MassMutual Center was a satisfying tale.
Freshman Nathan Rabbitt, on one of his few shifts of the game, knocked in a rebound from the slot with 3:08 remaining to break a 3-3 tie and deliver to Groton-Dunstable its first-ever state hockey championship, completing a 22-0-1 season.
"Twenty-two guys were going to have to win this game for us," said Groton-Dunstable coach Brian Payne, whose team took down a reigning state champion that outscored its three previous tournament foes by a combined 22-2. "Nathan Rabbitt sat on the bench two-thirds of the night. He had that shift and got the game-winner. That's what it's all about."
The Crusaders, who earlier led 2-1 and 3-2, dealt South Hadley (22-1-1) its first loss. South Hadley is a cooperative program that while under the Holyoke High purple-and-white banner last season defeated Groton-Dunstable, 3-0, the Division 3A state title game at Worcester's DCU Center. Now wearing the orange and black of South Hadley, from where nearly all its players hail, this program arrived last night poised to win a third state title in four years.
"Part of it was you wanted to get revenge," said junior forward Adam Kmetz, who scored Groton-Dunstable's first two goals last night (his 18th and 19th of the season). "You didn't want to go down two years straight losing the state championship. It just made us play that much harder. It just made it that much more special for everybody on the team."
South Hadley swooped into the game like a comet: 153 goals in 23 games. Groton-Dunstable came in advertised as the sounder defensive outfit: 18 goals allowed in 22 games.
"(South Hadley) had four of the top forwards in Division 3 and 3A hockey," said Payne. "But you know what? If four kids were going to beat us, we didn't deserve the championship."
The G-D forwards did their disciplined part, and defensemen Connor Maguire, Allan Haynes, Anthony Resca and Mike Keating rarely were caught up ice.
A cautious first period turned wild in the final minute. South Hadley forward Spencer Nawrocki's 38th goal of the season opened the scoring at 14:16.
"They probably thought they were going to get us down (for good)," said Kmetz.
Just 21 seconds later, Kmetz tied it. He backhanded a rebound into the short side with 22.2 seconds left in the period.
"C.J. Kenny made a nice play in the corner. Got it back to Allan Haynes. I don't know if it was on purpose, but (Haynes) took that shot wide, and it bounced out front," said Kmetz with a smile. "I just chipped it over the goalie. It was a huge relief."
The Crusaders finally beat Devin Hoagland, the South Hadley goalie who as a freshman had a 22-save shutout in last year's title game.
Kmetz scored again 1:17 into the second period, smacking in a rebound of a Mike Keating slap shot from the right circle on a 2-on-1. The Crusaders led 2-1.
South Hadley's Joey Harris tied it at 10:25 of the second, easily depositing a second rebound chance.
The Crusaders re-took the lead, 3-2, while on the power play at 13:34 of the second period. Kenny finished off a beautiful right-to-left crossing pass from sophomore Josh Rabbitt.
But with 5:05 to play South Hadley forward Chris Menard scored his 35th goal of the season to re-tie it.
Which left it to a freshman with fresh legs to be the hero for Groton-Dunstable with 3:08 to play. A bad clear by South Hadley was pounced on by Josh Rabbitt, leading to a shot by Stephen Mullins, the rebound of which Nathan Rabbitt authoritatively rifled into the open side.
"Nathan actually took my spot," said sophomore forward Justin Cole with a laugh. "I had a bad shift, so he took my spot. I'm glad he did. He deserves it."
Groton-Dunstable sophomore goalie Jason Robes (15 saves) made one furious stop in the final minute after South Hadley pulled its goalie for an extra attacker.
"Incredible. To go undefeated. It's an incredible feat," said Payne, delivering a state title in his third season at Groton-Dunstable.
The only partial blemish on the Crusaders' 22-0-1 mark was a 4-4 tie with Worcester/Leicester on Feb. 11. Groton-Dunstable avenged that with its 4-1 victory over Worcester/Leicester in the Central Mass. final, a game that was 1-1 in the third period and steeled the Crusaders for last night's battle.
"We had (greatly) outscored a lot of people, too," said Cole. "So playing that game definitely helped us."