By Michael Hoffer
LEWISTON — A 25-year odyssey came to a triumphant end at 2:44 p.m. Saturday at the Colisee when the Greely boys’ hockey team won its first championship, defeating Presque Isle 5-1.
The Rangers, just three days removed from surviving a mighty test from rival Cape Elizabeth in the regional final, climbed to the pinnacle thanks to their depth, skill and heart (along with two transcendent Harts).
The Rangers took an early lead and were never tested.
Senior Brian Allyn kicked off the party with a first-period goal and freshman sensation Brian Hart put it away with a hat trick, as Greely finished its best season on record at 20-1 and brought indescribable joy to its large and vocal legion of fans (please see accompanying story).
“It feels good,” said Rangers coach Barry Mothes, after completing his 15th season. “I’m very, very happy for the players and I’m very happy for the seniors who have worked hard all season. It’s been a tremendous four months of hockey. It’s been quite a journey. I’m very proud of them. They deserve a lot of credit.”
Ghosts be gone
Greely has long been a competitive program, but over the past six seasons, the Rangers have been among the best in the state – they only lacked the hardware to prove it.
Greely fell by a goal to Fryeburg (amid controversy over the Raiders’ recruiting Canadian players) in the 2004 Western B Final and lost close decisions to powerhouse Cape Elizabeth squads in the 2005 and 2006 regional finals.
The Rangers finally reached the state game two years ago, but couldn’t hold a third-period lead and lost 4-3 in overtime to Brewer. Last year, Greely reached the regional final again, but suffered another one-goal loss, this time to York.
The Rangers were pegged as the favorite entering 2008-09, but few, even those on the team, realized just how dominant they’d be.
Greely opened with a 2-1 win at defending Western A runner-up Kennebunk, but fell 6-3 at home to Thornton Academy Dec. 18.
The Rangers didn’t lose another countable contest.
They beat the best in Class A, edging Falmouth and Scarborough in overtime, beating Thornton Academy in a rematch in the Fix Cup tournament and winning at two-time defending state champion Biddeford. Class B foes fared no better, as Greely twice downed Leavitt and York, and beat top Eastern B contenders Winslow and Presque Isle.
The Rangers even had their way with top rival Cape Elizabeth, winning 5-4 in overtime on the road Jan. 5 and 5-1 at home Feb. 7.
Greely did lose 3-1 to the Capers in the final of the non-countable Fix Cup Feb. 2, but it served as a welcome wakeup call.
“Leading into the Fix Cup we were playing like a championship team, but we lost in the Fix Cup Final and didn’t play that way,” Mothes said. “That was a valuable setback. That game really helped us realize once and for all that if you don’t prepare with passion and put in the work, you might not win games you expect to win. That was a key juncture of the season when we played them and beat them five nights later.”
The Rangers earned the top seed for the Western B playoffs and easily dispatched No. 4 York 8-0 in the quarterfinals. Last Wednesday was a different story, however, in the regional final against Cape Elizabeth in Lewiston.
Greely entered the game without a key cog, senior defensive standout Kevin Hart, who broke four bones in his back against York. The Rangers had to overcome his absence.
They did, but it took awhile.
Greely senior Jesse Shavel answered an early Capers’ tally with a goal of his own to make it 1-1 after one period, but Cape Elizabeth struck twice on the power play in the second and hit the post twice more as it threatened to put the game out of reach.
The Rangers dodged the bullet, however, rallying to make it 3-3 after two goals from Brian Hart and junior Ian Gray. Early in the third, Hart scored again and Shavel and Gray followed to give Greely a 6-3 triumph and its second regional crown.
“We felt confident,” said Greely sophomore goalie Matt Labbe. “Give the guys credit, they never gave up and came back. Some guys get nervous. We feed off that.”
“I wasn’t worried,” Brian Hart said. “We were getting our scoring chances. We were working hard. It was just a matter of time. We were confident we’d score goals.”
“It was hanging on a knife’s edge for a little while there in the second period,” Mothes added. “I thought we played a pretty good game for most of it. I give my guys enormous credit for getting back in the game. I anticipated a battle. Cape’s a hard working team with a lot of pride and success. We’ve been that kind of team too.”
The final chapter
The team standing between the Rangers and their happy ending was a Cinderella squad from Presque Isle, which went 8-7-3 in the regular season and was ranked fourth in Eastern B before knocking off Houlton/Hodgdon, John Bapst and Winslow to advance.
Back on Jan. 17, Greely pummeled the Wildcats 10-1, but the Rangers expected a much closer game in the rematch.
“I tried to reinforce the idea that we had one game left and we couldn’t take anything for granted,” Mothes said. “We knew they’d come a long way since January. Privately, I knew if we played the way we could play, we had a great shot to win the game. The kids developed a sense of belief winning without Kevin in the lineup.”
Greely intended to end any Presque Isle upset hopes early, scoring just 3:16 into the first when Allyn collected a loose puck on the right boards, skated in and beat Wildcats sophomore goalie Josh MacFarline to make it 1-0.
While the goal energized the Rangers and their fans, Kevin Hart’s entrance at the 8:49 mark caused them to exult.
“I heard the news Tuesday that I’d probably be out a month,” Hart said. “It was devastating. Thursday, I was at practice. I wasn’t going to skate. I got bored watching, decided to skate and pushed it a little bit and started to feel good. The next day, I went to the doctor and got cleared to play.”
Mothes and his players knew a return was a possibility, but when Hart took the ice, Presque Isle was essentially finished.
“We knew around six o’clock (Friday night) he’d be cleared,” Mothes said. “He was out there quite a bit. He looked good and felt good.”
“I knew he wanted to play more than anything,” said Shavel. “He’s a great player. I can’t believe he played that well with four broken bones in his back.”
“It was huge,” added Brian Hart. “It got the team going. It was awesome.”
While MacFarline was doing everything he could to keep the Wildcats in the game, making save after highlight-reel save, the younger Hart finally broke through with 1:26 left in the first to make it 2-0 Rangers. Hart had the puck come to him between the circles and even MacFarline was no match for his blast.
Presque Isle limited Greely’s chances in the second, but couldn’t counter. Then, Brian Hart came to life again.
With 6:35 left in the second, on the power play, Kevin Hart sent a pass to his brother and Brian Hart’s second-effort sent the puck past MacFarline and into the goal for a 3-0 advantage. Just 33 seconds later, again on the man-advantage, Hart took a pass from sophomore Tucker Geoffroy and deked MacFarline before burying a shot for a 4-0 lead.
“It was huge to get an early lead,” Shavel said. “The goal putting us up by three was the biggest one. (Brian’s) amazing. I definitely think he has a future in hockey.”
“The first six or seven minutes of the second period were a little more even,” Mothes added. “(The Wildcats) had some jump. If they’d gotten a goal, it would have been a huge lift for them. Kevin had a great pass to Brian for a goal on the power play, then Brian’s deke got us another one. Those were two huge goals.”
Presque Isle answered in the final minute of the period when junior Zac Campbell rammed home a rebound off senior Dylan Collins’ shot to make it 4-1. But the Wildcats couldn’t get any closer.
Then, with 3:05 remaining in the game, Greely iced the victory when Gray set up junior Justin Murphy for a power-play goal.
“This team’s never even thought about letting down,” Gray said. “It’s not what we’re about. We knew we could do it the whole time.”
All that was left was the celebration.
“I can’t describe it, it’s amazing,” Shavel said. “We worked so hard and finally got it. It’s so much better being a senior. It’s my fourth year on varsity. It’s the best feeling ever.”
“We used our depth,” Kevin Hart added. “We wore them down a little bit with our speed. We rolled three lines.”
Greely ended with a mind-boggling 52-15 edge in shots. Afterwards, the Rangers raved about MacFarline’s performance, which included 47 saves, many of the highlight reel variety.
“I probably could have had four or five (goals),” Shavel said. “He robbed me a few times. I give him a lot of credit for keeping his team in it.”
“The guy was phenomenal,” Mothes added. “We had a lot of good scoring opportunities. He made great saves. I thought we could have been up easily more than two goals after the first period. He kept his team in the game and got better as the game went on.”
Labbe made 14 saves for the Rangers, who went 2-for-5 on the power play.
Two in a row?
Now that Greely has scaled the mountaintop, the Rangers will look to avoid having to wait 25 years to do it again. This year’s seniors (Allyn, Jake Downey, Matt Grondin, Kevin Hart, Peter Hoffman, Ryan Howland, Shavel and Kyle Selig) will long be hailed.
“The seniors had a focus and a seriousness, and had fun too,” Mothes said. “They came together in a powerful way. Their preparation was excellent. Great leadership. They’re a great group. It’s a long season with a lot of challenges. It’s very satisfying to win this for the first time in the history of the school.
“This is the best team I’ve had. In terms of the caliber of the schedule we faced, the breadth of contributions. Today, we probably featured 14 or so guys. To have that many guys regularly contribute was amazing.”
Brian Hart, Labbe and many other promising players will return and look to repeat.
“We’re going to lose a lot of seniors,” Brian Hart said. “That’ll be tough, but we’ll have to find a way to win next year. We hope to get back here next year.”
“We’re losing several kids who played regularly, but we have some good players coming back and some good eighth graders coming up,” Mothes added. “We’ll be excited to get going. We might not be the favorite, but we plan to be in the mix again next year.”
Sports Editor Michael Hoffer can be reached at email@example.com
Greely freshman Brian Hart slid the puck into an empty goal after his fake left Presque Isle goalie Josh MacFarline helpless in the second period of Saturday’s Class B state final. (Brandon McKenney photo)
Senior Brian Allyn found some room along the boards and left a Presque Isle defender in his wake. Allyn had the game’s first goal and his teammates added four more as Greely won its first Class B championship, 5-1. (Brandon McKenney photo)