Sunday, March 4, 2018

Pope Francis Staves off Super 8 Elimination against Burlington

By John McGuirk (@patsfan1313)

North Billerica, Mass.
- Following its disastrous performance three nights ago, there was nowhere left to go but up for Pope Francis. Having played by far their worst game of the season, which resulted in a 6-1 loss to BC High on Thursday during in the opening round of the Super 8 tournament, the Cardinals found themselves on the brink of seeing their season coming to a halt in Sunday night's elimination tilt versus Burlington.

At the start, Pope Francis seemed to have a hangover effect from the beat down it suffered at the hands of the Eagles. But, once the Cardinals got back to their familiar form, they managed to do just enough to upend the Red Devils, 3-2, at Chelmsford Forum.

Pope Francis, the No. 7 seed, lives to play another day. It will face the loser of Monday's Central Catholic/Hingham contest on Wednesday, again at Chelmsford Forum, at a time still to be determined. The sixth seeded Red Devils close out their fine season at 19-5.

At 5:44 of the third period, senior forward Brendan Nehmer, cycling deep inside the attacking zone to try and create some space, found a spot just to the right of Burlington goaltender Paul Barbieri. Taking a nicely-executed behind the net pass from Jon Tavella, Nehmer rifled a shot past the senior which proved to be the game-winner as it gave the Cardinals (18-4-3) a two-goal cushion.

"I was happy to get it and get the win as well," said Nehmer, picking up career point No. 100 in the process. "I knew their goalie would be sliding over and I would have that whole right side so it worked out pretty-well."

But a little more than three minutes later, Burlington's Jeff Russo made things a bit more interesting with a long-range goal by Pope Francis' freshman goalie Ben Zaranek and bring the Red Devils back to within one score with plenty of time left.

But for the remainder of the frame, Pope Francis did everything possible to keep Burlington from notching the equalizer. The Cardinals sacrificed their bodies to block shots and passes, eventually preventing the Red Devils from tying this tilt.

"It's a single elimination tournament at this point which fun,' Pope Francis coach Brian Foley said. "We started out little tight and didn't manage the puck too well. But fortunately, through the course of this game, we were able to get one more goal than them. That's basically all it was. We looked at tonight as being just another game. What happened on Thursday night was we just didn't give it our best and it wasn't a good match-up. The good thing about a double elimination tournament is you are playing someone different every night."

Early on, Burlington held the upper hand. Swiftfully moving the puck up ice, the Red Devils had ample opportunities to get on the scoreboard first, including a 5 on 3 advantage just a couple of minutes in. However, Zaranek was able to hold the fort and keep them at bay. Zaranek finished with 14 saves.

Just when it looked as though both teams would head into the first intermission scoreless, Tavella, positioned just to the right of Barbieri, took a crossing feed from Max Cocchi and snapped a shot into the back of the net for a power play marker, sending Pope Francis into the dressing room on top 1-0.

"We played a little slow at first but everyone seemed to pick one another up soon after," said Tavella, a junior. "We got a couple of key goals and just took off from there. It is a playoff game so you have to be ready for anything. We didn't play well the other night so we just needed to put that loss behind us. Tonight was certainly a big win for us moving forward."

The physicality between the two clubs was evident early and often. Neither had no trouble throwing the body in an attempt to gain any sort of edge. The Red Devils continued to do a nice job clogging up the neutral zone which, in turn, led to several odd-man rushes during the middle period. Burlington was also consistent by stretching the ice, often seeing its forwards able to sneak behind the Pope Francis defense.

At 8:27 of the second period, senior Chris Gedick, centered in the high slot, gained control of a bouncing puck from behind the net and was able to whisk a hard wrist shot underneath Zaranek's catching glove to even things at 1 apiece. But the momentum gained by Burlington was brief. Just 1:19 later, Cocchi, coming down the right side with the puck, promptly fired a laser shot from the right circle that Barbieri (23 saves) was late in snagging for 2-1 lead.

With the Red Devils showing a bit of fatigue during the early stages of the final frame, the Cardinals depth would take advantage thanks to Nehmer's tally to make it 3-1. Russo's response goal a short time later had Burlington believing it could climb back. However, that was the last quality scoring chance put forth by the Red Devils as the Cardinals defense shut them down the rest of the way.

"We thought we could compete with them and I thought we did that," said Burlington coach Bob Conceison. "I thought we played hard. The seniors played great in their last game and you can't ask for anything more. It was a great group of seniors and we will miss all of those guys. I thought we skated with them and we had as many offensive opportunities as they did. They maybe made one more play than us and that is why they won the game."

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