Wednesday, January 31, 2018

St. John's (Shrewsbury) Hockey Pulls Away from Austin Prep for Signature Win (UPDATE)

Photo by Eamon Convey
(CORRECTION: A previous version of this story claimed that St. John's qualified for the tournament by defeating Austin Prep when, in fact, the Pioneers remain one point shy of postseason qualification. We regret this error and have since edited the original story.)

By John McGuirk (@Patsfan1313)

Marlboro, Mass. - Not since his inaugural season back in 2013, when he reached the playoffs, has Mike Mead enjoyed this kind of success. Over the past three years his St. John's (Shrewsbury) Pioneers hockey club is usually playing out the season at this point.

But not this year.

Following Wednesday night's hard-fought 4-2 victory over Austin Prep at New England Sports Center, St. John's is now on the brink of the Division 1 postseason for the first time since that '13 campaign. The Pioneers merely need to tally one more point over their final half-dozen games to qualify for the tournament.

And, depending on how St. John's fares during the month of February, the Pioneers could prove worthy of a Super 8 berth.

"Tonight was a win against a top team and we were able to finish that third period which is something we have struggled with," said Mead. "We've been resilient. We've played a little shorthanded. Three of our top players (Matt Myers concussion, Jack Brosnihan knee and Mike Ayles hip) have all been out so we have some other guys who have been able to step up for us. What that tells me is we are a team in which everyone contributes."

With the game knotted 2-2 early in the third period, St. John's went on the offensive attack a few minutes later which proved to be the difference.

Goals by Alex Elias, at 7:03, and Dhillon Wilde (empty netter at 13:53) gave the Pioneers all the ammunition they needed down the stretch to come away victorious. The triumph improves St. John's overall record to 9-3-3.

Certainly the most gratifying win of the season, the Pioneers knew they would have their hands full against a red-hot Cougars squad. Throughout the month of January, Austin Prep has been on a roll, having gone 6-1-1 before entering this tilt. The Cougars (10-5-1) also had their leading scorer J.J. Harding back in the fold after the senior suffered a fractured wrist back on January 3rd in a game against Central Catholic.

"St. John's played a very good game," Austin Prep first-year head coach Bill Pappas said. "Unfortunately, I don't feel we played our best tonight. But the better team won and we have to live with that. Our defense struggled moving the puck tonight and we had a lot of turnovers. Those things happen. We've had a good run but you still need to continue to win and tonight we didn't win. We've had a good month and now hopefully, we can put this one behind us, move on and finish out the season strong."

After a scoreless opening frame in which both teams played evenly, Austin Prep took the lead just 2:53 into the middle period on Harding's rifle shot from the left circle. But St. John's never fretted. Despite the Cougars controlling the opening stages of the frame, putting up five shots in a matter of minutes, Pioneers senior goaltender Corey Splaine managed to hold them in check. Splaine was outstanding, finishing with 29 saves.

"I go into every game with the same mentality," said Splaine. "I try to focus a lot on my fundamentals and make sure my hands and body are where they are suppose to be. I also rely a lot on my defense. I have a lot of faith in them. Looking ahead, we just need to keep playing like the way we did tonight. The past few years we've competed with teams and that just wasn't enough. This year our mentality is not just to compete but to win."

Five minutes following Harding's score, St. John's senior forward Nick Palermo worked himself behind the defense and sent a hard wrist shot past Robert Farrell (10 saves) to square things at 1-1. With less than three minutes remaining in the frame, center Will Horrigan, from a tough right angle, roofed a shot beneath the crossbar to send the Pioneers into the second intermission on top 2-1.

The lead, however, was all but brief. Just 1:23 into the third Austin Prep's Matt Sacco jammed in a rebound to tie matters at 2 apiece. But the Cougars failed to seize momentum off of the goal. That, in turn, allowed St. John's to take control of things the rest of way, picking up a huge win in the process.

"We feel we can compete with anybody when we play up to our capabilities," Mead said. "Tonight, in the third period, we rallied around one another and that was big for us. Now we'll see what February brings."

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