GROTON -- Wednesday night's heavyweight matchup between No. 1-ranked (Central Mass.) Wachusett and No. 3-ranked Groton-Dunstable lived up to the pregame hype. Both teams came into the night without a loss, but only Groton-Dunstable's undefeated season remained intact with a 3-2 win over the Mountaineers.
Senior captain Justin Cole cannoned a slap shot in from the blue line and Bradley Garside tipped the puck past Wachusett goaltender Jake Strasser at 12:09 of the second period.
Wednesday night's game featured a plethora of trips to the penalty box. The Crusaders made the shameful skate to the sin-bin 11 times. Often times in hockey, 14:30 minutes in penalties against a strong opponent will kill you, but the Crusaders managed to squeak out the win.
"We knew it was going to be a tough game," said Groton-Dunstable head coach Phil Rowley. "We took too many stupid penalties tonight. Both of their goals came on the power play. I think that the penalties really impacted the flow of the game."
Groton-Dunstable drew first blood on one of the most majestic plays in hockey, the penalty shot. Kip Strong was held from behind by Wachusett defenseman Colin O'Brien as he skated in on net, which set up the penalty shot. Strong glided across the ice like a gazelle, decked to his right, and coaxed the puck through the five-hole to give the Crusaders a 1-0 lead at 2:49 of the first period.
"That's Kip's third goal off a penalty shot," said Rowley. "The kid is doing well. I am going to put him out there anytime I can for the penalty shots. He is my definite number one."
The Crusaders did a great job forcing turnovers off of the forecheck. Groton-Dunstable's Michael Keating tapped the puck over to C.J. Kenny, who caromed the puck off the leg of Strasser.
Strasser was unable to ice the puck, and senior captain Brad Zadrozny banked the loose change to give the Crusaders a 2-0 lead at 4:45 of the first period.
Josh Rabbit was sent off for elbowing at 6:36 of the first period, which set up a five-on-three attack for the Mountaineers. Wachusett would cash in on the power play off a Tanyon Ventres centering pass to Colin O'Brien, who squirted a wrister past Jason Robes with 6:30 remaining in the opening period.
After one period, Groton-Dunstable owned a 2-1 lead and a slight 8-5 shot advantage. The second period was a defensive showcase for both teams. Bone-jarring neutral-ice hits were not uncommon in the first-half of the period. When the Crusaders put the puck on net, good things seemed to happen.
Wednesday night, Cole pummeled a slapper from the blue line, and Garside managed to get his twig on the puck and sent it home to give the Crusaders a 3-1 lead with 2:51 left in the second period.
The Mountaineers came right back and drew within one, as Groton-Dunstable was forced to play a man down following a high-sticking penalty on Connor Maguire.
Connor Bernard connected on a centering pass at the top of the crease to sophomore Jack Watkins, who sneaked it by Robes to cut the Crusaders' lead to 3-2 with 1:23 left in the second.
Groton-Dunstable's first line of defenseman entrenched themselves and withstood a six-shot barrage by the Mountaineers with less than a minute left. With 40 seconds left in regulation, Marc Happy rocketed the puck stick-side, but Robes was able to slither to his right and steer the puck away.
Both teams finished the game with 27 shots on goal. Robes stymied 25 shots in the win, none more primetime than the save on Happy late in the third period.