SALEM — There was plenty at stake Saturday afternoon when the Salem State hockey team entertained Plymouth State.
For starters, legendary Vikings coach Bill O'Neill had a chance to pick up his 500th career win at the school. In addition, SSU senior forward Giancarlo Capodanno was just one point short of 100 for his career, and first place in the MASCAC was on the line as the hosts held just a one-point lead over second-place Plymouth State.
But it wasn't to be on this day.
The visitors spoiled all the celebrations by staging a late rally and scoring three third-period goals to win, 4-3. In doing so, the Panthers claimed the top spot in MASCAC standings with only three games remaining.
Salem State's 3-1 third-period lead was quickly erased with three unanswered goals by the visitors in less than five minutes. The game-winner came on the power play after Viking goalie Ryan Sutliffe (35 saves) made the initial stop, but the rebound came out to Kyle Greco, who put a one-timer into the back of the net at the 12:11 mark.
"This was a very disappointing finish," said O'Neill, his team now 9-3-3 in MASCAC play and trailing PSU (10-3-2) by a point. "This isn't the first time it has happened. The consequences are huge because this was a first-place game.
"The game is never over, whether it's 2-1 or 3-1; there is still so much work to be done. They found ways to make it work and score goals."
O'Neill said that Jack Astedt, Plymouth State's junior netminder, played very well despite the heavy pressure he saw from the Vikings.
"We put a lot of good shots on him, but shots don't count on the scoreboard. You have to put the puck in the net," O'Neill said.
The Vikings trailed, 1-0, after the first period but stormed back to go ahead, 2-1, on goals by Derek Crocker and a power play strike from Chris Costigan. Salem State then appeared to have the game in hand when Kyle Phelan scored in the first two minutes of the third period to make it 3-1. Mark Macdonald, a sophomore wing from Norwell, set up the goal by stealing the puck and racing down the right sideline before giving Phelan a perfect pass in the slot.
Trouble began for the Vikings in the third period when Phil Arnone scored his second goal of the afternoon for the Panthers on the power play. Just over three minutes later, a defensive breakdown by Salem State resulted in the tying goal from Michael Freitag. Less than two minutes later, Kyle Greco struck for the game winner and a Salem State skater in the penalty box.
The Panthers first line accounted for all four goals.
"I'm speechless," Panthers coach Craig Russell said. "That third-period burst was what we needed in the middle period but didn't get. Once Salem scored their third goal, it would have been easy to pack it in down by two, but these kids kept fighting back.
"Any win in this league is big, especially this time of year. It was ugly, but I'm very proud of the way my team responded in the last period."
Salem had a couple of excellent chances to tie it up late in the game, including a 5-on-3 situation. Matthew Genovese had the best bid, but Astedt came up with a huge save.