By John Orrell, Contributing Writer
Fitchburg — With its rich history of sports tradition, it had heretofore seemed incredulous that no ice hockey championship banner has ever hung from the rafters inside Algonquin Regional High.
But now it’s time to make way for that symbol of excellence to unfurl in the near future as the Tomahawk skaters have captured their first-ever title as Division 3 CMass champions with a grueling 2-1 overtime shootout-victory over second-seed Groton-Dunstable on March 14 at the Wallace Civic Center. The win sends the team on to a state semifinal matchup with Western Mass. champion Westfield High (11-10-1) on Thursday, March 17, at Springfield’s MassMutual Center. Puck drops at 5:30 p.m.
It took all three regulation periods, a pair of OT sudden-death periods (57 minutes in total) and an eight-round shootout, but in the end it was fourth-seed Algonquin (15-3-5) coming out on top. Senior co-captain and goaltender Mike Tascione (24 stops) made brilliant saves in bunches before sophomore Sean Prendergast netted what would be the winner in round eight of the shootout. Tascione needed to keep the Crusaders off the board one last time and did just that setting off a high-octane championship celebration by players and team supporters that carried over with excitement off-ice.
The Tomahawks advanced to the final round for the first time in 16 years with wins over Hudson High (2-1) and Shrewsbury High (3-2). Algonquin’s shootout victory over the top-seed Colonials was a stunner for many as (18-2-1) Shrewsbury had not lost in 12 games prior to the Algonquin matchup.
In that contest, the teams were deadlocked at two entering OT before Algonquin netted three goals for the shootout win. Alex DiPadua, Ryan Decker and Ian Kosovsky all scored for the Tomahawks who had fallen to Shrewsbury in tournament play in two of the past three seasons.
“I didn’t exactly think it was going to happen twice or it would go this long,” acknowledged Tascione of the Groton-Dunstable win and the unlikeliness of back-to-back OT shootout games. “Honestly, this was quite a bit more stressful. I didn’t expect it to go this many rounds. They’re really good shooters. I got lucky with a couple of posts. But we did everything we needed to do and got the win.”
The Crusaders got on the board first with a goal at 9:17 of the second period putting the pressure on the Tomahawks to not go into the final 15 minutes down by one. DiPadua took charge as he has done so often this season by pouncing on a rebound off the stick of Dennis Achkinazi and shoveled the puck home to knot the score at one heading to the final period of regulation play.
“It (goal) sparked the momentum right there,” said DiPadua, a senior co-captain. “We were talking on the bench that we needed a goal to end this period (second) and get the momentum up. So then Dennis (Achkinazi) took a shot and hit the post. I saw it. I crashed and put that one in. It gave us energy and we needed it.”
“We were upset but we picked ourselves up. We came together,” added senior co-captain Joe Sullivan of being behind 1-0. “We’re a family and it worked out. This is a great feeling. It’s been an insane ride. We started off good, then got a little shaky during the season, but we picked each other up, stayed positive in the locker room and it all worked out.”
After a scoreless third period controlled offensively by Algonquin, and two six-minute sudden death overtimes, the scheduled five-round shootout began with goaltenders dominating once more. No one scored through six rounds before Algonquin’s John Paterson found the back of the net as did Crusader Liam McDonough for the equalizer to keep the drama going.
It was here that Prendergast netted the would-be-winner before Tascione’s clinching save and the frenzied celebration was underway. Prendergast admitted to having lost site of the puck just prior to release off his stick and only knew that it slipped in by the roar of the crowd.
“Both goalies put on an absolute show in the shootout,” said Crusader head coach Brendan McCann referring to Tascione and his netminder Nevin Tardif (27 saves). “I don’t know how they dealt with that pressure. Both goalies, you can’t say enough about them in that shootout.”
“I can’t be more proud of how the guys played tonight,” said Tomahawk head coach Andy McGowan. “Groton’s a great team and our guys knew it going into it. It was a battle and I couldn’t be more proud of how the kids played tonight. They played their hearts out. Both teams did.”