By Jean DePlacido
---- — SALEM — For the first time in 19 seasons, they’re headed back.
The Salem State University hockey team scored five unanswered goals to win the MASCAC championship Saturday with a 5-1 victory over visiting Plymouth State before a large crowd at the Rockett Arena. The win gives the Vikings their first NCAA tournament appearance since 1994-95.
Salem State dominated play after falling behind early in the first period as sophomore Chris Mastropietro of Revere couldn’t have picked a better time to get the first hat trick of his college career. He earned tournament MVP for his efforts.
“I told the kids to take a deep breath and play our game,” said Salem State coach Billy O’Neill. His team won its first conference title since 2010 (when a bid to the NCAAs wasn’t automatic and SSU didn’t receive one). “Both teams had close checking and both goalies (Ryan Sutliffe for Salem and Gordon Ceasar for Plymouth) made some really good saves early.”
A small change made all the difference in the world for Salem Sate (16-9-2). Freshman Alex Minter of Peabody (goal, assist on Saturday) suggested he move to left wing and his linemate, Mastropietro, go over to the right side.
“(Friday) in practice we switched after Alex thought it might be a good idea,” said Mastropietro. “It worked for both of us.”
The Vikings learned their NCAA opponent Sunday night.
“Going to the NCAAs is so exciting. We don’t care who we play; there are a lot of very good teams out there. We have it in us to keep it going, because we have a great group of guys who always back each other up,” said Mastropietro.
The line of freshman John Needham between Mastropietro and Minter was the best combination Salem State put on the ice, winding up with six points between them.
After the Panthers (14-11-2) jumped out to a 1-0 lead on a goal by Andrew Smith, the Vikings answered when Mastropietro knotted it up early in the middle period. He roofed a shot from his knees to beat Ceasar, with Cam Moniz and Minter assisting. Just over a minute later sophomore defenseman Gabriel Cromp gave his team the lead for good with a power play blast from the point.
Before the period ended, Mastropietro and Boxford’s Keaton Cashin set up Minter, who uncorked a wicked one-timer from the left faceoff circle to give his team a little breathing room at 3-1. Cashin had a terrific game defensively, blocking numerous attempts as the Panthers were held to just three shots in the middle period.
“In a championship game like this, emotions run so high (that) scoring that first goal is a big deal. We had our chances but didn’t put one in, and you can’t get down by two,” said O’Neill. “We were fortunate to come back the way we did in the next period; those two quick goals changed the game.
“That (Mastropietro) line goes so well together, and they stay after practice to work even harder. We recruited Minter to be an impact player. He has all the skills and is very talented; he’s raised his game this season.”
Minter, who played for the Boston Jr. Rangers in the Atlantic Junior Hockey League prior to coming to Salem State, gave credit to his linemate ‘Mastro’ for a nice pass on his goal.
“I think switching wings helped us,” said Minter. “It gave us more offensive punch, and being on the left side is an easier feel for me. I can open up more.
“Winning the championship is a great feeling; I can’t remember the last time I won a championship. Maybe it was in baseball when I was a kid.”
For the first eight minutes of the third period the Panthers didn’t get a single shot on net.
“Our defense was outstanding, and as coach I am very pleased with that,” said O’Neill. “We’ve had it throughout the season and are committed to it. It takes a lot of hard work.
“Our captains, Kyle Phelan and (junior) Ian Canty, along with the other seniors (Mark Macdonald, Eric Defelice, T. J. Hermans and Sutliffe) moved the team in the offseason and their leadership has been impressive. As the year went on, we got better and never lost our focus. I am really proud of these guys and what they accomplished.”
Mastropietro scored the last two goals. The first came at 12:42 of the final frame in a jam in front of Ceasar when a slapshot by Cromp went in off his helmet. His finally tally came on the power play, with Sutliffe assisting for the first time in his college career.
“I just wanted to get the puck up there out of the zone -- and Mastro was there,” said Sutliffe. “It feels unbelievable to get over the hump; we’ve been so close in other years. I thought if we could get out of that first period, we’d be able to get going.”
Salem State 5, Plymouth State 1
MASCAC Championship Game
at Rockett Arena, Salem
Plymouth State: 1 0 0 — 1
Salem State: 0 3 2 — 5
First period: PSU - Andrew Smith (Tieg Alward, Mike Economos), 8:21
Second Period: SSU - Chris Mastropietro (Cam Moniz, Alex Minter), 3:50; SSU -- Gabriel Cromp (Mark Macdonald), ppg, 4:50; SSU -- Alex Minter (Mastropietro, Keaton Cashin), 14:21
Third Period: SSU -- Mastropietro (Cromp, John Needham), 12:42; SSU -- Mastropietro (Ryan Sutliffe), ppg, 18:21
Saves: PSU Gordon Ceasar 23; SSU Sutliffe 16
Records: PSU 14-11-2; SSU 16-9-2