NORTH ANDOVER — When sophomore defenseman Evan LeClerc's wrist shot clanged off the crossbar and into the B.C. High net with six minutes to play in regulation last night, the St. John's Prep hockey team got the tying goal they knew was coming.
But nobody could have foreseen how things would change just 29 seconds later — an event that ultimately ended the Eagles' season.
Chris LaLiberte's rebound goal with 5:27 to play gave B.C. High the lead back and the Dorchester-based school held off St. John's best efforts the rest of the way, escaping Lawler Rink with a 3-2 triumph in the Super 8 semifinals.
In losing to their Catholic Conference rivals, St. John's Prep — which suffered just its second loss in its 16 games — ended its season at 16-6-2. B.C. High will meet defending champion Malden Catholic for the Super 8 championship Sunday (6:30 p.m.) at the TD Garden in Boston.
"Sometimes things just don't go your way," said head coach Kristian Hanson afterward. "The chances were there for us, but (B.C. High goalie Peter) Cronin made some great saves, especially late. We played well enough to win, but ... "
Of the Prep's six losses this winter, four came against the Super 8 finalists (two each to M.C. and B.C.).
"Their goalie played great, and we didn't capitalize on our opportunities," said Prep captain Nick Pandelena, the senior defenseman who scored his team's first goal last night. "And there were a couple of times we got caught out of position or were out of sync, especially on their third goal.
"Bottom line is those guys finished off their chances."
Cronin was the unquestioned star for B.C. High (13-6-5) as the junior made 19 saves, including several highlight reel stops. Perhaps his best was when he flashed out his right pad to rob Sam Kurker on a one-time bullet from the low circle on the power play.
"You throw a puck on net off a one-timer like that and you expect it to go in," admitted Kurker. "But that kid made the stop."
While St. John's played well in stretches and had sustained offensive pressure on Cronin, there were other times the Danvers-based school looked tired and not as crisp, especially handling the puck. ("There were times we were gripping our sticks a little too tight," admitted Hanson).
It left them vulnerable in spots and B.C. High was there to pounce and create scoring chances of its own.
All three B.C. goals came as a result of scrambles and getting into the dirty areas in front of the net; two came off of rebounds and another was a funny bounce that hit Prep goaltender David Letarte's right arm (as he tried to knock it back out of his net) and trickled over the goal line.
"We had to minimize our mistakes, and we were fortunate that Peter Cronin was there to cover up for our mistakes. And yes, hard work did result (in his team's 3 goals)," said B.C. High head coach John Flaherty, whose team fell to Malden Catholic in last year's Super 8 semifinals.
"When (LaLiberte) scored, that was a good sign for me, coming so soon after they had tied it. Still, there were a couple of times when their guys had the puck when I had my heart in my throat. We don't have the skill level that some of their guys do, and they were making me nervous."
Tom Bessinger and Pandelena (his 8th, on the power play) traded first period goals before B.C. High's Tim Larocque scored late in the second period off of Letarte's arm for a 2-1 lead heading into the final 15 minutes.
Undeterred, the Prep pressed for the tying goal and got it when the unheralded LeClerc took a feed from Kurker (2 assists, giving him 63 points on the season and 129 for his career) at the top of the far circle and flung a high wrist shot through traffic that snuck its way home, tying the score at 2-2.
While they had chances after B.C. re-took the lead, the Eagles were unable to get the equalizer and saw their season end one game short of their desired destination.
"It's been a real special four years here," said Pandelena. "To watch how the guys have developed and the team has improved has been great."
B.C. High 4, St. John's Prep 3
at Lawler Arena, Merrimack College, North Andover
B.C. High: 111— 3
St. John's Prep: 101— 2
First period: BC, Tom Bessinger (un), 7:26; SJP, Nick Pandelena (Sam Kurker, Brian Pinho), ppg, 11:58.
Second Period: BC, Tim Larocque (Connor Noonan, Steve DeForge), 13:04.
Third Period: SJP, Evan LeClerc (Sam Kurker, Tyler Bird), 9:04; BC, Chris LaLiberte (Bessinger), 9:33.
Saves: BC, Peter Cronin 19; SJP, David Letarte 14.
Records: BC, 13-6-5; SJP, 16-6-2.