Photo: The Division 1 North champs, Belmont High School
The Marauders have conquered the North and the State is ready for the taking after Belmont High Ice Hockey scored twice in the final seven minutes of the third period to win the Division 1 North final, 3-2, over St. John’s (Shrewsbury) Monday night, March 9, in a come-from-behind thriller at the Tsongas Center at UMass Lowell.
Junior Ben Fici’s snap shot from beyond the left faceoff circle that rocketed by Pioneers goalie Dan Laursen glove with a minute and 25 seconds remaining proved to be the game winner, securing Belmont’s first ever Sectional crown.
Fici’s heroics followed a stunning shorthanded goal by senior assistant captain Marco Santagati who gathered a Matt Brody pass behind the defense, deeked Laursen to the left and buried a backhander at the 6:21 mark to tie the game at 2-2. Santagati’s goal came a little more than a minute after St. John’s retook the lead through the Pioneer’s Griffin Burns at 7:50.
“Tonight we got a power play (goal), we got a short handed goal, these kids just find different ways to win,” said Belmont Head coach Fred Allard outside a rakus locker room. “You just can’t count these kids out. They’ve just got a will that exceeds anything else. It’s remarkable.”
Belmont (14-5-5) will meet Walpole High (13-8-5), in the state championship game on Sunday, March 15, at the TD Garden in Boston. The Rebels are the surprise survivors of the South Sectionals, a 12th seed which, like Belmont, won its four playoff games by a single goal.
Belmont and Walpole are seeking its first state boys’ hockey championship. Belmont was the favorite in its only visit to the finals 65 years ago in 1955 only to be upset by Winchester which was coached by long-time Belmont resident Francis Finigan.
But a trip to the Garden was far from certain after the first 15 minutes as Belmont stumbled out of the gate giving up a goal after only 52 seconds on the Pioneers’ first shot on goal, a Matt Myers wrister from the slot that slide just inside the right post by Belmont’s senior goalie Nico Carere.
For the remainder of the period it appeared St. John’s was ready to skate the at times tentative Belmont players out of the building as they outshot Belmont 11-1. But Carere quickly returned to his steady form that he’s showcasted throughout the tournament, keeping a clean sheet for nearly two and a half periods.
“Nico’s our backbone. He’s the one that keeps us in everything. He did it again in another kind of sloppy first period,” said Allard.
In the locker room between periods, which Allard recalled being “pretty bad,” the team was pressed to return to the basics.
“We gotta focus on what we can do. Let’s get sticks on pucks, let’s get pucks in deep because we’re a good cycling team down low. Once we have control of the puck, once we get ourselves in that mode, we’re tough and we wear out defense, and that’s when we can put pucks on net,” said Allard.
Belmont came out the gate upping the intensity emphasized by senior co-captain Justin Rocha who producing a picture perfect shoulder-to-chest check in the first two minutes. The hit herald Belmont’s aggressive puck pursuit that bottled up St. John’s in its end, leading to turnovers as the Marauders’ shots total began adding up.
Belmont leveled the contest close to midway in the second when Matt Brody roofed a Laursen rebound deep in the slot at 8:08 in the second, sending the nearby Belmont student section into a frenzy. By the end of period, the Marauders outshot the Pioneers 17-6.
The pivotal third saw both teams pressed the action, with the Pioneers sending two forwards deep into the zone while Belmont looked for to pressure the puck carrier to attempt to jump on the transition.
After falling behind 2-1 and then picked up a penalty 49 second later with less than seven minutes in the game, Allard said he felt his team would not crack under the pressure.
“I think the fact that we’re battle tested, especially this year with the games we’ve had in the playoffs [four one goal wins] is just been a sign that we knew we could come back,” said Allard.
After taking the lead and St. John’s pulling its goalie, it was up to Carero to keep the door shut,
“Nico has just been locked in because he wants [a state championship],” said Allard. “He’s a very competitive, highly driven kid.”
After the game, Allard recalled the last season, Belmont missed the playoffs after finishing last in the Middlesex League.
“The player all say that we should have been better than that. But they didn’t get lazy, they worked just even harder to put ourselves in a position to have this moment right now. And today it worked out,” he said.
“I’ve been the speechless. These kids are just unbelievable.”