MANCHESTER, N.H. — With the first trip to the state championship in program history within reach, No. 3 Londonderry hockey pushed No. 2 Manchester Central to the limit for 45 minutes, including a pair of shots on goal in the final seconds of regulation.
But both shots were sent wide, and Central scored an empty-net goal with 2.6 seconds left to clinch a 3-1 victory over the Lancers in the New Hampshire Division 1 state semifinals last night at the JFK Rink in Manchester.
“Hockey is a game about momentum,” said Londonderry coach Peter Bedford. “When you have the opportunities there in front of you, it is about how you respond. When you miss a few opportunities, it creates a tough situation, and we couldn’t capitalize on a few.”
It was the Lancers’ second trip to the state semifinals in three seasons, but they again fell short of their goal of reaching the championship game for the first time since beginning varsity play in 2000-01.
“I think we got a little sloppy,” said Bedford.
“We were playing very tight, because I think the guys were very nervous. But we only graduate four guys from this year’s team, so I think we can have a squad that is ready to go next season.”
Central opened the scoring 2:05 into the second period on a goal by Devon Sprague.
But the Lancers wasted no time responding.
Just 10 seconds after the score, Londonderry’s Mike Dolan took a pass in front from John Gomes and scored to tie the game 1-1.
Manchester Central was able to grab the lead back exactly two minutes into the third, but could not add to the advantage thanks to tremendous play by Lancers netminder Joe McGrath.
McGrath made 24 saves on the night, with 10 coming in the final 10 minutes of play.
That included a split save on a breakaway and then a nice butterfly stop just moments later.
“Joe had one heck of a game,” said Bedford. “I really can’t say enough about the job he has done for us.”
McGrath’s best stop came late, when he made a save on a breakaway as Central star Austin Sprague barreled into him after being tripped.
Sprague was awarded a penalty shot, but was again stoned by McGrath.
“That is Austin Sprague, the (Division 1 ) Player of the Year and he stopped him on a penalty shot,” said Bedford. “That’s impressive. I don’t know how he made a few of those saves. Without that, we don’t have the opportunities late.”
Twice in the final 24 seconds of regulation, Londonderry had faceoffs to Manchester goalie Ian Beliveau’s right with an extra attacker on the ice. But one shot was redirected left, and the other sent aside by Beliveau’s left pad.
Central then scored into Londonderry’s open net to ice the victory.
“Late in the game I looked at some of the younger guys and told them to watch and be ready to embrace this next year,” said Bedford. “I feel like this year was a great learning experience, and the guys can take something away from this and be ready next season.”
agateHed:Manchester Central 3, Londonderry 1
agateText:Division 1 Semifinals
agateText:L@zzAgate:agateText:ondonderry (15-5-1 Div. 1):@zzAgate:agateText: 0 1 0 — 1
agateText:Manchester Cen. (16-4-0 Div. 1):@zzAgate:agateText: 0 1 2 — 3
agateText:Goals:@zzAgate:agateText: L — Mike Donlan; MC — Devon Sprague, Mitchel Fortin, Trevor Malmgren
agateText:Assists:@zzAgate:agateText: L — John Gomes; MC — Austin Sprague 2, Malmgren
agateText:Saves:@zzAgate:agateText: L — Joe McGrath 24; MC — Ian Beliveau 18