Repeat after me...Greely best hockey team in Class B
LEWISTON—The Greely boys' hockey team wound up where it was expected to finish all along, but it certainly didn't come easily.
Saturday afternoon, in the Class B state championship game at the Colisee, the Rangers were expected to waltz to a repeat title over a Messalonskee squad they beat by four goals in last year's state final and by four again in a regular season meeting in early February, but Greely would not have its way with the Eagles.
Despite holding a huge shots advantage in the first period, the Rangers couldn't tickle the twine and the game went to the second period scoreless.
Then, after more than seven more minutes without a tally, Greely finally broke through, courtesy its second line, as junior Joe Saffian set up classmate Aidan Black for a goal.
But instead of setting the stage for the Rangers to pull away, Messalonskee roared to life and tested Greely sophomore goalie Kyle Kramlich time and again, but Kramlich, in the effort of his young career, denied the Eagles at every turn.
It was still anyone's game when the third period began with Greely clinging to a 1-0 lead, but with 9:29 to go, unheralded sophomore Reid Howland finished a pass from talented classmate Mitchel Donovan to provide a little breathing room.
After Kramlich came up big a few more times to keep Messalonskee at bay, Rangers junior standout Ted Hart, who had been held in check for nearly 45 minutes, clinched the title with an empty net goal in the final minute and Greely went on to a 3-0 victory.
The Rangers repeated as Class B champions, won their third title in five years and capped another superb season at 17-4, ending the Eagles' fine year at 18-3.
"It was challenging and rewarding to really earn it," said Greely coach Barry Mothes. "It was good for our guys to get pushed to the limit. I feel good for the guys. We've had so many guys improve during the course of the year. We've gotten closer as a team the past few weeks. Their focus has been great."
Long and winding road
After winning last year's Class B state title (6-2 over Messalonskee) and returning an abundance of talent from that squad, Greely was viewed as a heavy favorite to repeat this winter.
The Rangers didn't disappoint.
Greely beat visiting Gardiner (6-0), host York (3-2), visiting Cape Elizabeth (7-3) and host and two-time defending Class A champion Thornton Academy (7-5) to start the season. The Rangers then lost at eventual Class A champion Falmouth (3-1) on New Year's Night and at home to Eastern A champion Lewiston (4-2).
Greely then pummeled visiting York (13-0) and rolled at Gardiner (6-1). Home wins over St. Dom's (4-1) and Yarmouth (5-2) were later forfeited as the Rangers learned they had inadvertently used a player who was ineligible to take the ice. That player was ejected for fighting versus the Wildcats, sat out against the Tigers, but in a new rule implemented by the Maine Principals' Association this season, he was supposed to sit out a second game. He played versus the Saints and Clippers and therefore, Greely had to give up the victories.
The Rangers bounced back nicely, however, defeating host Biddeford (6-3), visiting Leavitt (11-2), host Messalonskee in a state game rematch Feb. 2 (8-4) at host Cape Elizabeth (4-3).
Greely squared off with then-unbeaten Camden Hills Feb. 12 and dominated from start to finish in a 9-1 victory. After blanking visiting Leavitt by two touchdowns, 14-0, the Rangers saw the Windjammers again, this time at their place, and had to rally late to tie before eking out a 4-3 overtime decision. Greely then closed the regular season with a 7-1 victory at Yarmouth to wind up 14-4 and garner the top spot for the Western B playoffs.
The Rangers had a bye into the semifinal round and had no trouble with No. 5 Cape Elizabeth, 7-2, last weekend. Wednesday, Greely made quick work of second-ranked Camden Hills, 7-1.
As for Messalonskee, it won its first eight games, then dropped a 5-4 overtime decision at John Bapst. Three more wins followed before the Greely loss, but the Eagles closed on a five-game win streak to wind up 16-2 and first in Eastern B.
Messalonskee advanced with a 7-5 semifinal round victory over Hampden Academy and a 7-2 win over John Bapst in the East Region Final.
Saturday, the Rangers celebrated, while the Eagles again settled for second place, but the game didn't play out in the lopsided fashion many anticipated.
Early on, Greely carried play, but had nothing to show for it.
In the first period, the Rangers had good bids from junior Pete Hurley, whose initial shot was saved by Messalonskee junior goalie Ben Weeks and whose rebound went just wide, Hart, whose low shot was turned aside by Weeks, Hart, whose rush was denied by Eagles junior Chase Cunningham before he could shoot, and senior Kyle Megathlin, whose backhanded shot was saved and whose shot from the point was saved, with Weeks trapping the loose puck on the rebound.
Messalonskee had a decent chance on the period's only power play, but freshman Shea McCann sent a shot just over Kramlich and out of harm's way.
After 15 minutes, the Rangers had outsthot the Eagles, 10-2, but the game was scoreless.
"It was frustrating we couldn't score, but we controlled the puck most of the period," Hart said. "We knew we'd get one in the net eventually."
"I didn't sense any frustration, but (the first period) made clear that their goalie was seeing the puck," said Mothes.
Epitomizing Greely's frustration was a play where Howland and Donovan collided at center ice, with Howland going down hard.
"I was pretty shaken up," Howland said. "It was just miscommunication in the middle of the ice."
Scoring remained at a premium in the second period, but there was plenty of excitement and at last, a goal.
Messalonskee tested Kramlich early as Cunningham shot wide after deking a defender and freshman Jared Cunningham was denied on a breakaway after a turnover.
Hart had a great chance at the 5:48 mark when he showed a burst of speed to blow past a defender, but Weeks made a kick save.
With 8:11 left in the second, Jared Cunningham had a lot of net to shoot at after taking a pass, but shot off-target.
Then, with 7:32 to go in the frame, Greely struck thanks to a nice display of timing and passing as Saffian fed Black for a shot that Weeks couldn't stop and it was 1-0 Rangers.
"We came into the zone and I dumped the puck off to Joe," said Black. "He kept his head up and had a great pass to me back post. It was a simple finish."
"We were winning the pace of play," said Megathlin. "We knew we were close to putting one in. It was just a matter of time."
"Beautiful execution by Joe Saffian and Aidan Black," Mothes added.
While many thought that might open the floodgates, instead, the Eagles carried play the rest of the period, forcing Kramlich to stand on his head to preserve the lead.
First, Jared Cunningham shot over an open net. Then, on a 2-on-1 break in, senior Corey Foye shot high.
With 3:58 left in the period, Kramlich robbed junior Joshua Towle in close.
Down the stretch, Kramlich fell on a loose puck in front, twice denied Chase Cunningham, then got a huge break from his best friend as a Cunningham shot rang off the front post.
"It wasn't just me," Kramlich said. "I had plenty of help. I was seeing the puck really well. I had good lanes. I was aggressive like I like to be. We had the lead. I feel like I play better with the lead. I'm sharper in a close game. I love the big games. That's when I play my best. You have to. I got comfortable after we got the lead. I knew if I let one in, we'd only be tied. I still had to be sharp."
"He was unbelievable, especially in the second when they had a lot of pressure," Hart said, of Kramlich. "We really relied on him. I don't think we could have won it without him."
"Kyle has the knack for the big moment," said Megathlin. "He helped us out huge."
"Kyle was fantastic," Mothes added. "He probably made five or six just really, really top caliber saves to keep them off the board. I think he was frustrating them. He battled and fought through to see some pucks. He was quick with his legs. Just terrific. The bigger the game, nothing seems to faze him."
Messalonskee had nine of the final 10 shots of the second period, but still trailed, 1-0, with 15 minutes left.
In the third, Greely finally put it away.
The first five minutes of the final stanza resembled the first period as the Rangers controlled play and had a lot of shots, but couldn't finish.
The best chances came from Donovan, who shot high in close, and Hart, who hit the far side of the near post with a shot.
Then, with 9:29 remaining in regulation, Greely got some breathing room.
Donovan set it up with a nice pass to Howland, who found himself all alone in front. Howland beat Weeks, who had no chance, and the lead was 2-0.
"(Mitch) paid me back," said Howland, alluding to the first period collision. "Mitch made a great pass. He did a lot of hard work. He got it to me and I got the puck to the net and got lucky."
"Reid's got was a classic playoff hockey goal," said Mothes. "It won't make the ESPN top 10 highlights, but it's a goal you have to have in a game like this."
The Eagles didn't go quietly and almost got a circus goal with 6:22 left from Chase Cunningham, who, with Messalonskee playing shorthanded, flicked the puck over Hart, skated it down and bore in on goal, but Kramlich came out to poke it away.
Then, with just over a minute remaining, the Eagles had a flurry of shots. Several were deflected, but two got through only to be turned aside by Kramlich.
"I think we were worried about everyone," said Megathlin, about the Messalonskee offense. "We had to pick up forwards when they came into our zone and staying man-to-man down low and tying everyone up."
"We made some adjustments to our forecheck in the third period, keeping a third guy high," said Mothes. "We did a good job taking away the middle of the ice and reducing their odd man rushes. It got a little scary there in the back half of the second period."
With 15.8 seconds showing, Hart finally broke through into the scoring column, winning a loose puck and sending it sailing more than half the ice into the empty net to deliver the coup de grace.
" It's nice to say you scored in the state championship, even if it's an empty netter," Hart said. "It feels good."
Greely ran out the clock from there and at 2:46 p.m., when the final horn sounded, the Rangers celebrated their second consecutive Class B state title and their third all-time.
"It was definitely a lot tougher game than last year, but we triumphed, so it feels better," said Hart, who now his two championships to his storied brothers, Kevin and Brian's, one. "It's nice to have our balance. It really helped us out today. This being my second (title), it gives me bragging rights over my brothers, so that makes it more special to me."
"This is huge for us," said Megathlin. "It's the best feeling. We worked hard for this all year. We expected a close game today. We knew they'd come out with a fire. They came at us, but we held them off and scored a few goals. There was some pressure. We knew we had to work hard and stick to our game plan. We worked hard and got what we wanted. It's been awesome. We have four great coaches here. I have some great teammates. It's been a lot of fun."
"It was a close game all the way through," Black said. "We're used to getting early goals and building off that. Once we got one, it was a relief. They fought back hard, but Kyle had a great game. He kept us in it long enough to get a second goal. That second goal gave us confidence and composure to finish off the game."
"(We have a) great group of guys," Howland said. "We knew (Messalonskee would be) tough and come out firing for a state championship. We're always a confident team. We knew we had to get the puck in their end, play good defense and do what we've done all year."
Greely finished with a 31-17 edge in shots. The Rangers were 0-for-1 on the power play and got 17 saves from Kramlich (Weeks made 28 saves in a superb effort for the Eagles). Messalonskee was 0-for-2 on the power play.
"I thought this game might have a few more goals, but I thought both goaltenders played well," said Mothes. "Messalonskee brought a lot of heart and effort. They were hungry for a state championship too. They're a good team, well coached. It was fun to play them. It was a tense, tight game that was hanging in the balance until Ted got the empty netter.
"It wasn't a heavy burden on the players. Maybe a bit more on me. We felt like we needed to be here for this game. That's probably the right expectation, but there's no guarantee. We had to earn it. We approached this game from square one. That the Feb. 2 game meant nothing. We'd have to win a period at a time. It's rewarding to have won a close, hard-fought hockey game."
One more time?
Greely graduates Megathlin, Matt Ames, Mitchell Berube and Brendan Trelegan.
While the Rangers might lose some frontline talent to prep school or juniors, they will return a potential juggernaut again in 2013-14.
While Greely plans to celebrate this title for awhile, it's hoping to keep the good times rolling next winter.
"This year came with an expectation to get here and win," Black said. "Doing it feels really good. I want to be back on the big stage again next year."
"We have some people coming back," said Kramlich. "We lose our core defenseman. We'll have to work on D. With the kids coming up and coach doing a great job working with everybody, I think we'll keep playing well."
"We'll regroup a little bit, but we'll be back for summer league," Mothes added. "We have a lot of really good young players. Freshmen like Jarod Lavallee and Nathan Gervais, who were really terrific this year. We have a great group of sophomores who will step into even bigger roles next year. We couldn't have done it this year with the younger guys. We hope to get back in the mix again next year."