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MANCHESTER – State championships aren’t supposed to come easy; perhaps that’s why the Souhegan High School boys hockey team will appreciate its 2014 Division III title even more than usual.
“It was the toughest game we had all year, no doubt,” Sabers senior captain Mike Hayden said. “Championship game, they were going to go as hard as they can, and we were going to go as hard as we can. They were fast, big, and strong, we had to match it, and we came out on top. That was perfect.”
The result was a 5-4 win over John Stark-Hopkinton at the Verizon Wireless Arena on Saturday.
The high-flying Sabers (18-2) had little trouble with the Generals during the season, but it took a Joe Nutting goal at 11:25 of the third period, and a disallowed JSH goal with 1:20 left, to bring Souhegan’s its fourth boys hockey crown, its first since 2008.
The game included a wild, six-goal second period, after which the teams remained deadlocked at 4 until Nutting broke the stalemate.
Nutting, who had been stymied throughout, won a faceoff that he had begged Sabers head coach Dan Belliveau to take, then set up in front of Stark-Hopkinton goalie Josh Gagne (20 saves). Nutting tipped in Alek Moresco’s blast from the point for the winner.
“I definitely wanted to be on the ice at that moment,” said Nutting, who was the team’s leading scorer all year. “Alek Moresco made a great play. I got lucky when I got a piece of it.
“I had to get to the right spot, and the right spot is in front of the net, that’s where good things happen.”
Souhegan was met with a tough challenge as it trailed 1-0, 2-1, and 3-2, but responded every time, something it didn’t have to do in beating the Generals 8-2 and 4-1 during the regular season.
“We can score goals, and we can score goals in bunches,” Souhegan coach Dan Belliveau said. “I just told the kids, keep playing our game plan and the goals will come. We drew it up on the board in between the second and third periods and knew we had to settle down (defensively).”
The Sabers had to hold their collective breath when JSH’s Alex Lajeunesse let go of a major blast just inside the blue line that Sabers goalie Connor McCall (14 saves) had no chance on at 13:40. The Generals were already on the power play and had pulled Gagne. But a whistle just before and a hooking call on Callahan Loos negated the apparent goal.
“It was pure relief,” said Sabers senior captain Mike Hayden, who had the team’s first goal. “It may have been just as great a game if it went into overtime. But we wanted to win then.”
The fifth-ranked, 12-7-1 Generals, who rallied to stun top seeded Belin in overtime in the semis, showed they’d be tough by striking first 21 seconds into the game. Peter Sawitsky’s shot off the faceoff trickled underneath McCall, who reached for it in vain as it crossed the goal line. Lajeunesse earned an assist.
“We were building off of what we did against Berlin,” Generals coach Denis Kolehmainen said. “We came back well. We had an opportunity.”
Hayden tied it with a rush goal, assisted by Matt Wilson, at 8:17.
Then came the wild second period. JSH again scored early, 27 seconds in, Ryan Hawkes on an assist from Jake Blanchette to lead 2-1. It was a bang-bang play after Maresco’s clear attempt around the back of the net failed.
Souhegan got the equalizer on the power play, Taylor Farrow converting Maresco’s pass at 3:21, but the Generals got the lead again when Hayden’s drop pass was intercepted and off the rush Blanchette got it by McCall, assisted by Sawitsky and Kyle Kolehmainen at 6:16.
Want more? You got it. Souhegan scored two straight to take a short-lived 4-3 lead. Saber Riley Connor tucked in a rebound of a Farrow shot to tie it at 7:54 and just over a minute later James Wilson converted on the power play, assisted by Alek Medic and Connor.
However, the Generals got the equalizer at 10:26, also on the power play, when Scott Olson’s blast from the point trickled under the pads of McCall.
JSH’s Garrett Thomas was credited with the goal, but it appeared on replay that he never touched the puck.
In any event it set the stage for a decisive third period. And a decisive call near the end.
“Had that shot come two seconds earlier than the hook, then we’d be tied and going on into overtime,” Kolehmainen said.
“It was terrifying,” Saber senior captain Mike Hayden said. “That was a wicked shot.”
“It’s awesome to win,” Nutting said. “But kind of sad that the season’s over.”
It ended with a hard-earned championship.