NORTH ANDOVER — On the one day of the calendar year that is actually a command, the St. John's Prep hockey team followed orders — march forth — in yesterday's Super 8 hockey playoff opener.
Despite never trailing, the Eagles found themselves in overtime with a scrappy and talented Springfield Cathedral club at J. Thom Lawler Arena on the Merrimack College campus. But captain Sam Kurker sent the locals home happy with a rebound goal at 9:21 of the extra session, enabling St. John's Prep to knock off the Panthers, 4-3.
Sophomore wing Tyler Bird's initial shot hit Springfield Cathedral goalie John Liquori in the chest and bounced into the air. Center Brian Pinho took at whack at it and missed, but the puck nearly fell onto the waiting stick of Kurker in the slot, who picked a corner and roofed it for the winner, his 27th goal of the season.
"Who's better than Sam to get the puck in a situation like that?" asked St. John's Prep (13-5-3) head coach Kristian Hanson afterward.
St. John's Prep now faces Central Catholic of Lawrence — an upset 6-5 winner yesterday over St. Mary's of Lynn in a shootout — Wednesday back at Merrimack (8:15 p.m.).
The game was eerily reminiscent of the Prep's first Super 8 game a year ago, when it was taken to overtime by an upstart Woburn team before the Eagles prevailed, 4-3. Last year's team, of course, went all the way to the Super 8 championship game at Boston Garden.
"Maybe this game will give us that same kind of momentum (as last year)," said Pinho, who had two goals and an assist and was named his team's Player of the Game.
Third-seeded St. John's Prep took a 1-0 lead just 88 seconds in on Andrew Brandano's goal from the slot. Pinho's unassisted tally 53 seconds into the second doubled that lead, but Springfield Cathedral (10-7-6) roared back with two second-period goals from Frank Crinella, including one while shorthanded.
The Eagles again took the lead early in the third on another Pinho ("hands down our best player today," Hanson said) unassisted snipe, this one a power-play rocket.
But the sixth-seeded Panthers responded with yet another shorthanded goal, this one from Peter Crinella, with 9:19 to play.
The winners got 28 saves from senior goaltender David Letarte, while John Ryan, Evan LeClerc and the Prep defense had strong games. Junior Nic Gianelli, moved up to second line center, also drew praise from Hanson for his all-around play.
"We played well in spurts, but (Springfield Cathedral) did a great job capitalizing on our mistakes," Hanson said. "In the end, though, we were fortunate to get the bounce we needed."