Photo: Belmont High senior Matt Rowen scores the game’s first goal off a Tim Cushing rebound as Belmont defeated Natick, 3-0, in the first round of the MIAA Div. 1 state hockey championship Friday, March 4
The 800 fans who stuffed themselves into the ancient forum known as “The Skip” Friday night, March 4, had the opportunity to witness the quintessential “Belmont” game played by the High School Boys Ice Hockey during the successful 2021-22 season.
In its 3-0 home shutout over Natick High in the first round of 32 in the MIAA Division 1 state tournament, the Marauders demonstrated the three elements that produced a 17-1-3 record: solid goaltending from senior Ryan Griffin, a defensive scheme based on frustrating and tiring opponents with an attack that can strike anywhere inside the blue line.
“We’ve established this year an identity and that we’re a defensive team that strikes when the opportunity presents itself and that we did tonight,” said first-year head coach Tim Foley.
Belmont set the tone of the game scoring within the first two minutes of the puck being dropped when four Red Hawk skaters playing a high line defense lost senior forward Matty Rowen who drifted behind them and lifted an in-close rebound by Natick senior goalie Tim Cushing with 13:03 on clock.
“It’s always important in the playoffs to strike first, you don’t want to be playing from behind and trying to catch up to the team,” said Foley. “You’ve got to get out in front, you got to make that push early on.”
For the remainder of the first, Belmont’s defense – which has surrendered a mere 24 goals in 22 games – took the play from the Red Hawks by thawing its attempts to establish any cohesive tactics by forcing Natick to fight for the puck along the boards while blocking the rare centering passes.
While Friday demonstrated Belmont’s three tier team approach to victory, sophomore forward Matt Pomer was a presence on all corners of the rink. On several occasions in the second and third period he was a handful for Red Hawk defenders around the net, nearly scoring on a solo rush from behind the net. On the first penalty kill, he out-muscled Natick’s leading scorer Matt Haskell and striped the puck early in the second period.
“Mattie is a very good player who is very steady and plays hard,” said Foley of his second line forward. “We knew that Natick was going to come with a physical plan and that’s Mattie Pomer’s game. He loves the physical part of the game, taking pucks away from people, hitting players with his shoulders down. He was in his office today.”
Belmont was at its strongest midway through the second as they squeezed the Red Hawks into their zone which produced Belmont second tally. With junior Shay Donahue screening Cushing, Fici deftly slotted the puck from his favorite left side circle into the back of the net to double Belmont’s advantage with 3:15 remaining. The goal was Fici’s 35th of the extended season.
“I told the team they have to get the pucks in deep, get pressure on the other team and that will get pucks to the net and hopefully in the net,” said Foley.
The Red Hawks entered the final 15 minutes on the front foot to get back into the match but Griffin held the fort as the Marauders’ defensive stalwarts – first pair of juniors Joe Gaziano and Peter Grace along with fellow junior Theo Martin, sophomores Adrien Gurung and Ryan Holloran, junior Henry Melanson and senior John Whouley – shut the door on any comeback.
A late interference call against the Marauders allowed Natick to pull Cushing with two-and-a- half minutes remaining, but the resulting two man advantaged could only produced a pair of long-range shots against Griffin. Down a man, Belmont sealed the victory when Grace picked up a loose puck and “waltzed” to the blue line to fill the empty net before falling on his back while attempting a rare goal celebration.
Belmont (18-1-3) will host 10th-ranked Marshfield High (which took down Lincoln/Sudbury Regional, 2-0, on a pair of goals in the final four minutes. Time and date to come.
“I know [Marshfield] … and they play hard, they play physical and they’re going to be tough to play against. But we have to rely on our attributes and our abilities and we’ll execute our game plan and hopefully, have another win,” said Foley.