LOWELL — The Winchester High boys’ ice hockey team did not have to come from behind in the MIAA Div. 1 North final, last night at Tsongas Center, but its 4-1 victory over St. John’s Prep may have been the Sachems’ most impressive thus far in the tournament.
The Eagles outplayed Winchester by a small margin in the first period, yet came away down, 1-0, St. John’s Prep then dominated the second period, but needed two power plays just to tie the game at 1-1.
The way the game was trending, however, it seemed like the Prep was the better team and would forge ahead in the third and perhaps add an empty-netter late.
Instead, it was the Sachems who came out strong in the third period, drawing an early penalty, and then getting a power play goal from Michael Drew at 3:15 to retake the lead, 2-1. Drew then picked off goalie Jackson Irving’s clearing attempt and — almost in one motion — turned it into a 3-1 lead, less than five minutes into the third.
There was still plenty of time left for an Eagles’ rally, but Rob DiVincenzo, who played great in the first two periods, came up with several more stops to keep St. John’s Prep from getting any closer before a last-minute empty net goal from Ryan McCarthy finished off the Eagles.
The Sachems now advance to the Div. 1 State final on Sunday at the TD Garden, where they will face off against South champion Duxbury at a time to be determined.
“It feels great to be going to the Garden, I’m so happy for these young men,” said Winchester coach Bill Burns. “They worked hard all year. We play in the best public school league in the state, and that really helped us obviously during the season to go night after night against tough teams. There were no nights off.”
The Sachems set the tone in the first period with an aggressive forecheck. Their strategy was to get the puck in deep and then keep the Eagles from breaking out of their end.
St. John’s Prep certainly had their chances, including a couple point-blank shots, and two excellent deflections of shots from the point which DiVincenzo somehow came up with the save.
This trend would continue throughout the game as the need to stop the Eagles from scoring occurred regularly.
“As he has done all this year and last year as a freshman; he stepped up and shut them down,” said Burns, of his sophomore goalie. “He made some great saves, he saw the puck very well. That’s a good team over there, they run four lines deep and Rob really stood tall tonight.”
The aggressive forecheck led directly to the first goal. Joey Falso checked a Prep player along the right boards, which led to the puck going into the right circle. Junior Michael Martignetti managed to beat another Eagle to the puck and he slid the puck into the slot, where sophomore defenseman got an open look and buried a shot behind Irving at 9:28.
“We started out the last two games down 2-0 and we knew we couldn’t do that against this team,” said Burns. “We had to be aggressive, we had to jump right on them from the get go. That was our game plan.”
DiVincenzo indicated he was in it for the long haul with three more great stops in the first five minutes of the second period. Winchester took a penalty at 5:05 and the Eagles several more good chances, but could not score.
The Sachems did not get a shot on net until midway through the period, and two of their three shots in the stanza were from well out on the perimeter.
St. John’s Prep finally tied the game during a second power play. Patrick Moran, who had been robbed twice earlier in the period, was there for the easy finish outside the right post after DiVincenzo made a save on Ned Malolepszy.
By the end of the second, down 20-8 in total shots on goal, Winchester was in need of words of wisdom.
“What I told them between periods is that it took (two) penalties to get a goal, when it was five on five we were playing them tough,” said Burns. “We felt relatively confident coming out in the third period, as long as we stayed out of the box and played our game, we would be alright.”
The Sachems were enjoying their first power play when they scored the go ahead goal. Martignetti and Joe Lepore were battling the Eagles for the puck behind the St. John’s Prep when Lepore got the puck to Drew in the slot. Drew beat Irving with a wrist shot and Winchester was ahead to stay.
Drew scored the second goal on the goalie mistake, less than two minutes later, and the Sachems were suddenly in command. Repeated sharp glove saves by DiVincenzo (27 saves) allowed Winchester to stay loose and confident.
Ryan McCarthy won a face-off near center ice and sent a shot from outside the Prep blue line into the net for the 4-1 final.
Duxbury, the South champion, was named to the Div. 1A field, but lost in the play-in game. The Dragons will be a formidable opponent on Sunday.