Sunday, March 11, 2018

Pope Francis Eliminates Top-Seeded Central Catholic from Super 8

By John McGuirk (@patsfan1313)

North Chelmsford, Mass. - The game plan carried out by Pope Francis was set on stopping Central Catholic in its tracks. Twice during the regular season the Cardinals lacked strong defensive play, resulting in a pair of losses against the Raiders.

With an opportunity to redeem itself, Pope Francis did just that on a much bigger stage. Placing strong attention to detail inside the defensive and neutral zones, the Cardinals, playing on a smaller ice surface, were able to limit the top-seeded Raiders' scoring opportunities throughout the evening.

That, in turn, allowed Pope Francis to generate enough offense to take a 4-1 victory in a Super 8 elimination contest played Saturday night inside Chelmsford Forum.

In a true case of turnabout is fair play, this time it was the Cardinals sending Central Catholic home for the season after suffering a similar fate last year against the Raiders in this tournament.

"Obviously we aren't going to win if you just score one goal," said Central Catholic first-year coach Kim Brandvold. "Right now we are just proud of the season we had. It comes down to the end of the year and we didn't get the bounces or make the plays that we wanted to. It's going to happen. I know it is all about the finish and we didn't get there, but we are proud of what we did."

Seventh-seed Pope Francis (19-4-3) continues to play with their backs against the wall when it meets No. 3 St. John's Prep (15-4-4) Monday in another elimination bout at Tsongas Center beginning at 5:30 p.m. The Eagles upended No. 8 St. John's (Shrewsbury) 3-1 in the night's other knockout tilt.

By using a 1-2-2 trap effectively, Pope Francis forced the Raiders to try and stretch the ice with long passes in an effort to work the puck out of their zone. However, a majority of those passes were either intercepted or nullified for icing. Central Catholic (22-3) was held to 18 shots, and just four total in the third period. Once inside the attacking zone, the Cardinals continuously kept three men back on the blue line to prevent any Raider odd-man rushes up ice. All in all, the scheme worked to perfection.

"As a team everyone was committed to playing defense," said Cardinals coach Brian Foley. "In the first two games against them we were getting caught playing three guys deep and we were putting too much pressure on our defense. Tonight I thought our structure was better in disrupting their breakout. It made our defense's job easier and they did a good job keeping it simple. We knew Central loves that wide pass and we needed to do something to slow them down. The kids really executed to it very well."

Pope Francis would strike first in this one. At 10:54 of the opening frame, the mighty trio of Makem Demers, Max Cocchi and Brendan Nehmer played a game of tic tac toe before Demers finished it off by wristing a shot down low past Central Catholic goaltender Matt Pasquale.

But the lead was brief. Less than two minutes later, and with Cardinals' winger Jon Tavella in the box for tripping, Evan DiGiovanni, taking a nice feed from Joseph Biddle, cut towards the net before slipping a backhand shot past Victor Larssen to knot things at 1-1.

Early into the middle period, Pope Francis endured its second infraction as Nehmer was whistled for a slash. This marked a golden chance for Central Catholic to build some momentum. But unfortunately for the Raiders, things soon backfired.

Cardinals defenseman Jacob King managed to steal the puck just inside the offensive zone. The senior darted across the ice before sending a hard shot by Pasquale from the high slot, at 3:35, for a short-handed tally, putting Pope Francis ahead to stay 2-1.

"Jacob is a senior and you could tell that he wants to win his last game and not lose his last game," Foley said. "He's given us everything he's got. It was a great read by him and an unreal shot."

The Cardinals energy heading into the second intermission was at an all-time high. They realized what they were doing defensively was frustrating the Raiders and taking them out of their game. Now they needed just 15 more minutes to keep Central Catholic down and allow their own season to continue.

Obviously, maintaining a one goal lead against such a formidable club would be no easy task. Despite its focus on the defensive end, Pope Francis realized it still needed push things offensively in an attempt to add to their lead. At 12:43, it came. A 2-on-1 chance created by Pope Francis quickly turned into a 3-on-1 opportunity. With Demers flying down the left side and Nehmer coming down the right side with the puck, the senior spotted Trevor Crawford trailing the play untouched. Nehmer quickly slid a crossing pass over to his teammate. Crawford, a senior, then sent a one-timer past Pasquale (20 saves) to make it 3-1.

"We knew coming into this one that they are a great team," said Crawford. "We felt we needed to make their goalie move side to side. I thought we really executed defensively tonight. We knew we had to make sure our defense was in lockdown mode and it was. They beat us twice during the regular season but we knew it wasn't over because of that. We stuck in defensively and we knew our offensive chances would come off of that and they did."

With the Raiders unable to generate any offensive flow, it appeared as though Pope Francis' two-goal lead would hold up. With under a minute left, and Pasquale pulled for the extra attacker, Crawford gained control of the puck inside the neutral zone and proceeded to score an empty net goal, from just inside the blue line, to leave no doubts.

"That was the best game of his life," said Foley on Crawford. "It was great to see another senior step up in that situation and really perform. We needed great efforts from everyone and we got a lot of great efforts from everyone. Trevor was one of the best tonight."

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