FITCHBURG - Groton-Dunstable came into Saturday evening's Roy Conference tilt with Fitchburg with its head held low after losing, 4-3, in its home opener to Leominster.
However, come Saturday, the Crusaders fortunes would change for the better, when it defeated the Red Raiders, handily, 5-2. Senior captain and center Josh Rabbit produced a hat trick in the opening period, which proved to be the difference maker as the Red Raiders capitalized on the Crusaders' five penalties.
"We gave them a good reason to get back in the game," second-year Crusaders' head coach Phil Rowley said. "We came out in the third period and got that one goal right away - they only had one shot on goal in the final period. The kids played good defensive hockey." Groton-Dunstable blazed out of the gates with reckless abandon, netting its first goal at 3:10 of the first period. Junior James Tardiff was on the receiving end of a bang-bang pass from Eric Niemoller.
Tardiff kept his stick on the ice and wristed the puck past Fitchburg goaltender Tom LeBlanc stick-side, 1-0. Two minutes later, Josh Rabbit gathered a pin-point pass from junior linemate Derek March and sweeped it in the low left corner of the cage.
Rabbit continued his scoring prowess later in the period with two more, including a power play goal, as the Crusaders' lead ballooned to 4-0 at the first intermission.
Fitchburg saw red in the third period and clawed its way back into the game with an unassisted tally at 1:17 of the second period. Senior center Ryan Boucher skated the length of the ice and elevated a nifty wrister from inside the right face-off circle to make it, 4-1.
Later in the second period, it was Anthony Hoffman with another unassisted deke-and-dump finish that wedged its way past the blocker of senior Groton-Dunstable goalkeeper Jason Robes (nine saves.)
At intermission, Rowley gave his young men little pep talk after conceding two goals in the second - and, it worked. Senior co-captain Justin Cole put the game on ice with his unassisted highlight reel goal 37 seconds into the final period.
Cole glided down the left wing and sniped a laser beam from inside the face-off circle to put the quintessential death-nail in the Red Raiders' coffin.
Cole baffled LeBlanc with an abrupt toe drag and a blistering finish.
"The team responded well and came out strong in the third period," the coach said. "We picked up some good leadership in the third period from the captains. I was pretty happy with the play of that senior line. We are still young and we are still making some mistakes. We still got a lot of shots on them. I was very happy with the way they came back after that second period."
Rabbit was quick to give his teammates credit for his first period hat trick.
"It was a good game all around," the senior captain said. "We came out as a team in the first period and got some pucks on net. I got a couple good passes and I was able to put a hat trick in. I got a few good passes from my teammates, worked it down low and put it home. Coming off a first game opener loss, it is great to get that first conference win."
Groton-Dunstable out-shot Fitchburg 32-11.
The Crusaders return to the rink on Monday when they host Marlborough at 7 p.m. inside the Groton School rink.