By Chuck Frye
STONEHAM — The last thing that anyone could call Central Catholic would be an underdog.
True, the Raiders were a No. 8 seed in the Super 8 tourney and taking on top rated St. John’s Prep, but there’s no difference to discern among two of the state’s best programs. The proof of that was in the play during a brutal, back-and-forth first round that wrapped up yesterday at Stoneham Arena.
At every level the teams were equal in the best-of-three finale. But in the final seven minutes, the Prep saw perfect positioning get rewarded with goals while senior netminder Billy Price was denying the Raiders on the other end. The Eagles (19-3-1) survived for a 4-2 victory and a berth in the semifinals against Austin Prep starting Wednesday at Tsongas Center.
“The first game (a 4-1 Central win) was ours and the second game (3-1 Eagles) was theirs,” said Central head coach Mike Jankowski. “(Yesterday) was nice, it went back and forth quite a bit. (Goalie) Colin (Soucy) made some nice saves that gave us some momentum and they did as well. Just a great game.”
The Raiders (15-7-3) never backed down, shaking off a pair of Prep leads.
Four minutes after Jimmy Currier’s second-period 180-degree spin and score in the right circle, Lloyd Hayes rewarded a patient Raider power play with a left circle laser that beat Price’s catching glove.
“Lloyd just competes,” said Jankowski. “Besides the goals (three in this year’s tourney), what he does in his own end, the open-ice hits, taking some hits off the wall ... he’s just a complete hockey player.”
And after Soucy’s four-star skate save on Justin Longo turned into a rebound goal for Paul Crehan late in the second, Billy Stahley’s dirty work in the right corner set up Christian Thompson for a perfect one-timer with 7:26 left in the game to retie the score.
But as truly elite teams tend to do, they find ways to win.
Just 26 seconds after Thompson’s goal, North Andover’s Brian Pinho broke a personal first-round shutout by being in the right place at the right time. Bouncing back from a second-period breakaway where he lost control of the puck before he could shoot, Pinho saw Tyler Bird’s shot slide to him at the left post and the senior tucked it home for the eventual game-winner.
“That’s the best goal I’ve scored in my life,” said Pinho. “Soucy has robbed me probably five times in this tourney, and it felt so good to get that goal. I can’t even describe it.”
Once again, the Raiders surged, searching for the equalizer. Stahley was set up clean in the right circle but was stoned by Price (23 saves), and things went downhill for Central from there.
Faced with a penalty kill with 2:56 left, Central saw Pinho set up Bird — an Andover native — with a perfect pass in the slot. Calmly shifting from backhand to forehand, Bird snapped a wrister past Soucy and the game was essentially over.
“It was a 2-2 game and then they have some high-end players that made some big plays in big moments,” said Jankowski. “You have to tip your hat to them.”
But despite the setback, Jankowski still sees the year as ending in glowing terms.
“It was just a fantastic season. It started with Colin in net and what he’s done for us, and I can’t be prouder of how we came together this year. We replaced 10 guys — half our team — from last year, and the character, the resiliency and the leadership of Nick Gorski and the other seniors. I’m just very proud and very, very fortunate.”
agateHed:St. John’s Prep 4, Central Catholic 2
agateText:St. John’s Prep (19-3-1): 0 2 2 — 4
agateText:Central Catholic (15-7-3): 0 1 1 — 2
agateText:Division 1A First Round
agateText:at Stoneham Arena
agateText:St. John’s Prep wins series, 2-1
agateText:Goals: CC — Lloyd Hayes, Christian Thompson; SJP — Jimmy Currier, Paul Crehan, Brian Pinho, Tyler Bird
agateText:Assists: CC — Kevin Regan 2, Derek Vaillancourt, Billy Stahley; SJP — Nic Gianelli, Brent Murray, Evan Leclerc, Justin Longo, Bird, Ryan Byrne, Pinho, Jack McCarthy
agateText:Saves: CC — Colin Soucy 21; SJP — Billy Price 23