Thursday, February 22, 2018

Central Catholic Holds off Pope Francis in Opening Round of Cardinal Classic; Malden Catholic Bests St. Mary's (Lynn) in other Semifinal

By John McGuirk (@patsfan1313)

West Springfield, Mass. - The odds of scoring more than one goal against Matt Pasquale have been paper thin this season.

So after Central Catholic spotted its outstanding goaltender a two-goal lead, it appeared pretty safe that it would hold up. Despite some feverish third period play by Pope Francis, the Cardinals only managed to get one shot past the junior as the Raiders prevailed 3-1 Wednesday night in the opening round of the Cardinal Classic played at the Olympia Ice Center.

Central Catholic (20-1) will face Malden Catholic (8-8-3) in the championship tilt here on Thursday beginning at 4 p.m. The Lancers edged St. Mary's of Lynn in evening's other preliminary contest. Pope Francis will take on the Spartans in the consolation game at 2 p.m.

Pasquale was solid throughout, making 17 stops, including several point-blank opportunities off the Cardinals' sticks. In this much-anticipated battle between two teams expected to be seeded high in the upcoming Super 8 tournament, both played well. However, Central Catholic, who lost to Arlington in last year's Super 8 final, did a little bit more. This victory marked the second for the Raiders over Pope Francis this season. Back in December, they prevailed, ironically, by the same 3-1 score, in the Pete Frates Winter Classic.

"Our goalie came up with some big stops when we needed it," said Central Catholic first-year coach Kim Brandvold. "We know he will do that for us. We finally started to get our bearings midway through the first and I thought we played well the rest of the way."

With Pasquale holding up his end, it would become evident early that offense would be at a premium. That's because Cardinals netminder Victor Larssen was equally impressive, turning aside 19 shots.

Pope Francis (15-3-3) started out strong but failed to get anything past Pasquale, including a short-handed breakaway chance just a minute in. Roughly six minutes into the opening frame, Central Catholic finally started to finds its legs and began to move the puck up through the neutral zone and into the Cardinals' area of the ice. Things finally paid off for the Raiders, at 13:24, when Jack Gray gained control of a bouncing puck inside the right circle and fired a shot just beneath the cross bar for a 1-0 lead.

The momentum from that tally carried over into the middle period for Central Catholic. The Raiders came out blazing as they put up seven unanswered attempts on Larssen in the first five minutes. However, they had nothing to show from it as Larssen, a junior, continued to stonewall them. Having survived the flurry, the Cardinals finally got into a bit of a groove, as it was they who turned into the aggressor during the middle stages of the frame. Yet, like Central Catholic, Pope Francis could not find the back of the net.

With just over a minute remaining before intermission, the Raiders padded their lead. Forward Eric Lester, crashing the Cardinals net, pushed in a rebound for a 2-0 advantage.

"After those first five minutes of the game we started to settle down," said Lester, a senior. "A win like this definitely gives us a lot of confidence. But our coaches continue to tell us that we still need to get better. We know there is still plenty of work left to be done (in the postseason). We still have unfinished business from last year and we are all trying to get that done this year. There is still plenty of room for improvement."

Central Catholic was determined to make the lead stand. Getting more-aggressive with their fore check and back check, the Raiders refused to allow the potent Cardinals to gain any momentum. But that strategy backfired after Owen Fowler was whistled for hooking, putting Pope Francis on the powerplay.

Patiently working the puck around the perimeter, Cardinals' defenseman Jacob King, from just inside the blue line, rifled a shot through traffic that Pasquale never saw to make it a one goal affair with a little more than 10 minutes to go.

Pope Francis continued its torrid tempo but Central Catholic's bevy of defenders did an excellent job pinching them along the boards and not allowing any clear pathways to the net.

"Things started out great for us and I thought we had a bunch of chances early," Cardinals coach Brian Foley said. "I thought we should have buried a couple early to get up. We came into the first intermission down 1-0 when we felt we should've been up. We got one back in the third but couldn't get any closer. I thought our defensive zone coverage was poor. We need to tighten that up. We played good enough to win but we just didn't defend well."

With the game still hanging in the balance, Lester provided some much-needed relief after his backhand shot, from the right circle, sailed over Larssen, at 10:14, giving the Raiders back their two goal cushion. The two scores by Lester now gives him 15 on the season. For the remainder of this one, Central Catholic continued to thwart Pope Francis to close it out.

"Eric has a knack for being around the net and making plays," said Brandvold. "I thought both of his goals tonight were very timely. He's been playing well and we think he will continue to do so."

Lancers prevail

Needing to secure two wins in this tournament to qualify for the postseason, Malden Catholic took a giant step in that direction following its victory over St. Mary's (Lynn).

After a scoreless opening period, the Lancers jumped in front, at 4:11, of the second thanks to Riley Duran's top-shelf tally from the left circle which eluded Spartans goalie Kevin McMullen.

In a tight-fisted affair from start to finish, Malden Catholic, putting up 29 shots, was able to curtail St. Mary's at every turn with a nice balance of offense and defense.

"We could have packed it in a long time ago but I'm proud of the effort the kids gave tonight," Malden Catholic coach John McLean said. "We know we can skate and we have some skill. The bigger rink here helps us because it gives our guys a little more space to work with. Hopefully we can win (Thursday) and get into the Division 1 tournament so these kids can get a ride and see what it feels like. I would like them to have that experience."

A few minutes into the third period, the Lancers caught a major break when the Spartans were called for a holding penalty and a bench minor in succession. Playing 5 on 3, Malden Catholic took full advantage of the powerplay opportunity as Bernie Gillis pushed back a rebound to move his team ahead 2-0.

Tempers began to flair up shortly thereafter when two St. Mary's players were flagged for questionable misconducts resulting in Anthony Bono receiving a game misconduct and was done for the evening. The calls infuriated Spartans head coach Mark Lee, who was looking for answers from game officials over the calls but got none in return and was ejected. It was his first heave-ho during his 35 years as the Spartans' bench boss.

The craziness seemed to pump St. Mary's, the defending Division 1 state champions, up because a few moments later, on the man-advantage, Damon Maribito slipped a rebound by Kevin Burkett, bringing the Spartans to within a goal with a little more than three minutes left. For the remainder of the contest, the Spartans (12-5-4) did everything possible in their attempts to secure the tying goal but Burkett (17 saves) held the fort to come away victorious.

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