Greely hockey still unbeaten after surviving York
FALMOUTH—They didn't score a traditional, even strength goal all night, but the Greely Rangers found a way to stay unbeaten Thursday night in their boys' hockey showdown versus fierce rival York.
Greely took advantage of a shot that deflected off a Wildcats' defender into the goal, then added two empty netters in the final minute to support the stellar 29-save effort of grieving senior goalie Matt Labbe to improve to 10-0-1 on the season with a 3-0 victory over 7-5 York.
"It's unbelievable," said Labbe, who attended his grandfather's funeral in the afternoon, just hours before producing the shutout. "(York's) been a big rival of ours for a long time. We were revved up and ready to play them. We came out ready and flying."
"Frankly, we need games like this," added longtime Greely coach Barry Mothes. "We're in a stretch of really tough games. Tonight was an important challenge for us. We've been a little inconsistent for my taste since Christmas. We've had good periods here and there, but I thought tonight, the effort shift to shift was really good."
Over the past decade, Greely and York have produced some of the most heartstopping playoff drama around.
The regular season games are usually memorable, but once you get into late February and March, you can count on the Rangers and Wildcats to produce jawdropping action.
The teams have met in eight of the past 10 postseasons. In both the 2001 and 2003 Western B quarterfinals, Greely tied the game in the waning seconds, but lost in double-overtime by 3-2 scores. The Rangers turned the tide in 2004 when Andrew Bisbing's goal as time expired (or after the horn as York fans still insist) gave Greely a 5-4 quarterfinal round win. The next year produced an even more improbable victory in the semifinals, when the Rangers scored twice in the final seconds to force overtime where they won, 5-4.
After a year with no playoff meeting, Greely edged York, 2-1, in the 2007 Western B Final for its first regional championship. The Wildcats got a measure of revenge with a 4-3 regional final victory in 2008, but en route to their first and only championship, the Rangers routed York, 8-0, in the 2009 semifinals. Last winter, despite being heavy underdogs, Greely pushed the Wildcats to the brink, falling, 3-2, in the semis.
So far this season, the Rangers have been the class of Class B and arguably one of the top teams in the state. Greely won nine of its first 10 games, averaging five goals per contest, while surrendering just over one. The Rangers' only close calls came at Westbrook Dec. 21 (a 2-1 victory) and a scoreless home tie versus Western A contender South Portland on Jan. 8.
On Dec. 18, at York, Greely won, 6-2, behind a five-goal second period. Sophomore Erik Rost scored twice and Labbe made 34 saves.
The Wildcats came to Falmouth Thursday on a high, having won four straight, but despite a fierce effort, their streak would come to a halt.
Even though it was a school night and York had an hour bus ride home after the game, the puck didn't drop until 9:02 p.m. The visitors had the better of the play in the first 15 minutes, outshooting the Rangers, 10-3, but Labbe turned away every bid and the teams went to intermission scoreless.
In the second, the Wildcats again came out hot, nearly scoring eight seconds in when junior Shane Hughes broke in on goal, but Labbe stood tall and also stopped a rebound bid.
Greely would get the only goal it needed with 13:14 to play in the second. The puck came in on net, was cleared by York senior goalie Alex Ahrikenchickh, but a Wildcats' defender came flying into the play and deflected the puck right back past the goalie and into the net. Rangers senior Justin Murphy was credited with the goal (with sophomore Kenny Richards and senior Devyn Rogers getting assists) and Greely had a 1-0 advantage.
"We got lucky on the one goal, but it happens," said Labbe. "It's happened to me multiple times."
York had a good bid to tie midway through the second, but Labbe made a kick save on senior Tyler Lewis' shot and the Rangers clung to a one-goal lead heading for the third.
There, they had to dodge several scares before finally putting the win on ice.
Just twenty-three seconds in, junior Craig Decato's blast was snared by Labbe's glove. With 12:43 to go, Labbe denied senior Anthony Figlioli's shot. With 10:03 remaining, Labbe pounced on a loose puck that squirted in front of the net. With 3:44 left, the Wildcats' last, best chance came on a shot by Figlioli, but again Labbe turned it aside.
"I went out and saw the puck well," Labbe said. "The defensemen did a good job clearing guys out so I could see the puck. York came out flying in the first period with 10 shots. That put me in a rhythm and I stayed in it."
"There's nobody else I'd want in (goal)," added Mothes. "It's not just (Matt). We did a good job in the third period, but we're still learning to shut the hatches down on a game. Keep the puck safe and on the outside. We still move it through the middle too much for my taste."
With 1:01 remaining, York took timeout and after getting the puck in Greely's zone, pulled Ahrikenchikh (19 saves) for an extra attacker, but it immediately backfired as Rogers stole the puck, skated in and calmly tucked a shot into the empty net for a 2-0 lead with 49.6 seconds left.
If that wasn't enough, off the ensuing faceoff, again with the goalie out of the cage, Richards took a pass from junior Pete Stauber, skated in and scored to ice the victory. The Rangers then ran out the clock on their 3-0 win, which was much, much closer than the final score indicated.
"We had a good solid tempo in the first period, even though we didn't score," Labbe said. "We didn't have as many shots as I would have liked, but we carried the play for awhile. We were solid in the second and third. Last year was a building year. A lot of guys got experience. They're really contributing this year."
"It wasn't a 3-0 game," added Mothes. "It was tight. It was a one-goal game on a fluky goal. I was pleased that we had some good possessions. Offensively, our puck movement and possession was as good as it's been in awhile. A lot of our better players played really good games tonight which is what we need going forward. I thought our guys, starting with Matt in net, who was really focused and solid as heck and our D did a nice job. I was pleased with the total team effort."
York finished with a 29-22 advantage in shots on goal.
"(York) played hard," Mothes said. "I expected it to be a game like this. I thought it would be a playoff-caliber game. Good speed up and down. They've played well for three or four weeks. They're jelling as a team. I congratulate them for playing a good, hard game. They're probably over there thinking they'll see us again. We're thinking we might see them again. It will be a good game if that happens."
As Mothes alluded, Greely is in the midst of a brutal stretch. If Thursday's showdown wasn't enough, the Rangers host defending Class A champion Biddeford (8-0-2) Saturday at 6:10 p.m. Tuesday at 5:30 p.m. (at Portland Ice Arena), they visit another top Western B rival, Cape Elizabeth (which has won nine of 10). Thursday, Greely hosts the other team in the Western B playoff picture, Yarmouth (8-4).
The Rangers remain the regional favorite and hope to make it two state championships in three seasons, but there is still a long way to go.
"We have a good record, but there's a lot of work to be done," Labbe said. "We scored one goal tonight and it was a fluke and had two empty netters. We need to work on the offense. Biddeford's a tough test. We beat them a couple years ago, but that doesn't mean anything now. Hopefully we can come out flying early and get a couple goals."
Sports Editor Michael Hoffer can be reached at email@example.com