NORTH BILLERICA — The modern day Red Army marches on.
Like that all-powerful, world-renowned Russian hockey club of three-plus decades ago, the 2009-10 Marblehead High hockey team is relentless in its pursuit of victory. They prepare for any possible situation, execute to near perfection and don't hope — but rather expect — to keep advancing in the state playoffs.
Now, they're just two wins removed from the one thing those old Soviet teams used to make an annual occurrence of: winning a championship.
An underdog against top seeded and unbeaten Concord-Carlisle in Saturday's Division 3 North title game, Marblehead wasn't fazed in the least. Playing pressure free hockey, they got three goals from their Green (i.e., second) Line and 16 saves from junior goaltender Tony Cuzner to defeat the Patriots, 4-2, in front of 2,000 fans at the Chelmsford Forum.
"This is just the greatest thing," said a wide-eyed Austin Haley, the 15-year-old sophomore who, along with fellow second liners Tyler Gelineau and Hunter Graves, all had huge goals for the Headers in the win. "Nothing I've ever done before can match this."
At 20-2-3 on the season, Marblehead tied the mark for second-most wins in school history with the 1984-85 MHS club (20-5) that reached the Division 1 state final before falling to St. John's Prep. This year's Headers can still equal the all-time single season mark for wins set by the 1966-67 squad captained by current UMass Amherst head coach Toot Cahoon, which finished 22-1-1.
In capturing the North crown, their second in the last three seasons, the Headers ran their unbeaten streak to 17 games (14-0-3) and puts them in Wednesday's Division 3 state semifinal at Harvard University's Bright Center.
There, they'll face South champion Scituate, a 4-1 winner over Ashland yesterday, for the right to advance to the state championship game Sunday afternoon at TD Garden.
It was Graves' goal that proved to be the game-winner for third-seeded Marblehead. Tied at 2-2 heading into the final period, Haley got control of the puck in his own end and started a beautiful tic-tac-toe play that led to the goal. He fed Gelineau in the neutral zone, who in turn hit a streaking Graves with a beautiful head-man pass up ice.
Skating down his off (left) wing, Graves had space and time before firing a blast that beat Concord-Carlisle netminder Steve Saul glove side for his sixth goal of the season.
"We knew they were mortal, and we knew some of their games had to have been close," said senior defenseman Anders Gundersen. "We couldn't look at them as an almighty superpower; we had to think of this as just another game."
Rather that sit on their lead and hope they could simply hold the Patriots (20-1-2) off the scoreboard again, Marblehead kept attacking and putting pressure on Saul. "It seems like every time a football team plays a prevent defense, they give up a touchdown," mused Marblehead head coach Bob Jackson. "We didn't want to give up any touchdowns."
Instead, the Headers sent their large crowd of fans who made the trip home happy when junior left wing Ryan Dempsey scored his team-leading 17th goal on an empty netter with 41 seconds to go.
"I was going to make sure to slam that puck in (the open net)," smiled Dempsey outside the locker room.
"When Demps scored that empty net goal (with 41 seconds to play, sealing the win), I couldn't even stand up. I was in total shock," Cuzner said. "I still don't know what to say. It's an amazing feeling."
Cuzner described how his team had adopted a Giants vs. Patriots mentality, referring, naturally, to the Giants' stunning upset of the unbeaten Pats in Super Bowl XLII three seasons ago. (Ironic, considering the nickname of Marblehead's opponent on this night). It was, he said, the perfect mentality to take into a contest as pressure packed as this one.
"We talked about how the pressure was all on them, and for our players to play relaxed," added Jackson.
Haley, who came into the season on the Headers' fifth line, got the scoring started 1:38 into the second period. Gelineau picked off a clearing pass in the Patriots' zone, threw it to Haley below the circle and watched as his linemate backhanded a shot that pinballed off and under Saul for the goal.
"I was on the bench last year against Shawsheen (a shootout loss for Marblehead in the tournament) and didn't play one second. So to come out and score a goal tonight ... it's a dream for me," said Haley.
After Robbie Snook knotted it up for Concord-Carlisle, Gelineau gave Marblehead the lead back 35 seconds later by knocking in a loose puck to Saul's left. Justin Harris of C-C again tied it up before the period ended, setting up Graves' scoring heroics early in the third.
Marblehead 4, Concord-Carlisle 2
Division 3 North final
at Chelmsford Forum, North Billerica
Marblehead: 022— 4
Concord-Carlisle: 020— 2
First period: No scoring.
Second Period: M, Austin Haley (Tyler Gelineau), 1:38; CC, Robbie Snook (Jackson Finnigan, Morgan MacLean), 11:30; M, Gelineau (Hunter Whitmore, Hunter Graves), 12:05; CC, Justin Harris (Griffen Fadden, Jamie Sundquist), 13:25.
Third Period: M, Graves (Gelineau, Haley), 1:41; M, Ryan Dempsey (un), eng, 14:19.
Saves: M, Tony Cuzner 16; CC, Steve Saul 22.
Records: M, 20-2-3; CC, 20-1-2.