GROTON -- Coming into the season no one knew quite what to expect from the reigning Division 3-A state champions who moved up to Division 3 with a new head coach.
When head coach Phil Rowley took over two weeks before the season, he outlined the team's goals as winning the conference, qualifying for states and winning a title. The Crusaders completed step one of the journey, and have now punched their ticket to the state tournament.
Groton-Dunstable captured the Roy Conference crown Wednesday night at the Groton School with a 7-1 decision over a gritty Leominster squad.
"It was great to get it out of the way," said Rowley on winning the conference title. "I did not know what we were running into tonight. Now we can just kind of relax and do what we do best. Senior leadership is unbelievable on this team, and the captains are really focused in keeping the whole team on track."
Groton-Dunstable started the first period at a furious clip as Justin Cole accepted a great pass from defenseman Connor Maguire and crashed vehemently down the right wing. Cole drew the keeper off his line, and coaxed an ice-level wrister through the legs of Leominster goaltender Logan Bergeron at 1:08 of the opening frame.
The Crusaders would cash in on two more goals before the first period came to a close. Maguire glided across the blue line less than a minute later and persuaded a wrist shot by Bergeron stick side with sniper precision. At the 6:00 mark, Josh Rabbitt controlled the puck down along the right dasher, and streamlined a feed to C.J. Kenny, who elevated the puck top shelf to push their lead to 3-0.
Leominster had a quality chance on goal when Matt Williams unleashed a transition slapshot that was stonewalled by Jack Niemoller. Leominster saw a bevy of chances from Cam Moran late in the period, but Niemoller dove and made some remarkable stops.
In the second period, the physicality level began to pick up, and so did the penalty minutes. Leominster accounted for 10 minutes in the sin bin during the second period.
Groton-Dunstable went on the power play and Nate Rabbitt made the Blue Devils pay with a finesse goal at 3:42 of the second period. Just over a minute elapsed before senior defenseman Michael Keating cranked a wrist shot from atop the right faceoff circle that deflected off Bergeron's shoulder and in to extend the Crusaders' lead to 5-0.
Leominster's physical play paid dividends on their only tally of the night by Justin Burke. Burke uncorked a slapper from the left wing off a one-two feed from Joey Apicella to make it 5-1 with 8:51 remaining in the second period.
Nate Rabbitt would score the Crusaders' final goal of the period with great stick work off the faceoff. Rabbit skated into the slot and with a flick of the wrist beat Bergeron. Derek March would score the Crusaders' final goal to put the icing on the Roy Conference Championship with a late third-period goal on a poke-in. In the game, Groton-Dunstable held a decisive 47-12 shot advantage.
"The seniors all said to me we have one more to get," said Rowley. "They know what they want, and our goals at the beginning of the season were to win the conference, go to states, and do a lot of the damage in states and go all the way."