By Phil Stacey
---- — LOWELL — You can plan for, anticipate or ready yourself for almost anything in a particular hockey game.
What you can never see coming are the fluke plays, the ones that happen at the worst of times and deliver devastating results.
That’s how the St. John’s Prep hockey season ended last night.
An Austin Prep power play shot from the left circle popped up in the crease, was knocked down by a St. John’s defenseman ... and bounced backwards and over the Eagles’ goal line, proving to be the game-winning goal. That strike, coming with just 2:11 to play in regulation, gave the underdogs from Austin Prep a stunning 2-1 victory over the top-seeded Eagles in the Super 8 semifinals at the Tsongas Center.
“It doesn’t matter how they got it. (Goals) all count the same,” St. John’s Prep coach Kristian Hanson said after his team saw its season end at 19-4-1.
“I thought we played a pretty good game. Did we play a great game? No, but we played well enough to win. But we’ve had difficulty all year capitializing ... and tonight it came back to bite us.”
Timely scoring -- or lack thereof -- was one of the Eagles’ few Achilles heels this season, and as Hanson noted postgame, it came back to bite them last night.
Desperate to tie the score as the clock wound down, the Prep swarmed the Austin Prep zone and got two excellent chances. But junior left wing Jimmy Currier -- who rang the post early in the second period -- was denied at the near post by the Cougars’ sophomore netminder, Elijah Harris, who then stopped Jack McCarthy’s bomb from the top of the left circle with 10.5 seconds to play.
Harris finished the night with 28 saves, and when the final buzzer sounded his teammates mobbed him in celebration while the Eagles tried to fathom that their season was over.
“We played our game ... but we didn’t finish, that’s for sure,” said Prep senior captain Brian Pinho, who had five shots in the first period alone and assisted on the Eagles’ lone goal, a Tyler Bird rebound tally with 8:14 left in the third period to tie the contest. “We controlled the play but just couldn’t score.”
It was the final game of their careers for 16 Prep seniors, who went to three straight Super 8 semifinals (the first time in school history that’s ever been done), reached the 2011 championship game and won the program’s first Catholic Conference title in 19 years this winter.
Austin Prep (16-1-6), which will meet two-time defending Super 8 champ Malden Catholic in Sunday’s title tilt at the TD Garden in Boston (6 p.m.), came in with a simple but highly effective game plan: slow the pace of the game down, force the Eagles to the outside lanes and make sure Harris had as many clear looks at the puck as possible.
“The kids did exactly what we asked them to do,” said Austin Prep head coach Louis Finocchiaro, whose team avenged its only loss of the season, a 5-1 setback to St. John’s on Jan. 19. “We were able to get the results we wanted.”
“The most frustrating part was the opportunities we had,” said Hanson, “we didn’t get anything out of them.”
The Cougars had a 1-0 lead after two periods thanks to Nolan Vesey; the senior captain poked a rebound home far side, with freshman Eric MacAdams assisting on the play. The Eagles’ Cam Shaheen had a golden chance to knot it up a minute-and-a-half later, but his off-wing shot ticketed was denied on a right pad save by Harris.
As a power play expired in the third, St. John’s kept the puck hemmed in the AP zone and finally converted when Bird buried a rebound shot from McCarthy. But try as they might, they couldn’t push the puck past Harris again.
St. John’s Prep is now 1-3 all-time in Super 8 semifinal games.
“We have a great group of guys and a very, very good team,” said Pinho, who has a full scholarship to Providence College. “I’ve got a ton of great memories.”