THE KENNETT hockey team celebrates its Division III championship on the ice at the Verizon Wireless Arena on Saturday. Joshua Spaulding. (click for larger version)
March 10, 2012MANCHESTER — Sometimes when a team isn't playing its best, a wake-up call is a necessity.
On Saturday afternoon at the Verizon Wireless Arena in Manchester, the Kennett Eagles got that wake-up call.
The Eagles, who did not play their best hockey through three periods of action in the Division III championship game against Alvirne, woke up in overtime and controlled the play the entire extra frame, until Anthony LaRusso, who missed last year's playoffs with an injury, sent the Kennett fans home happy with his second goal of the game with just 26 seconds remaining in the extra frame.
"We picked a good time to play our best period of the game," coach Mike Lane said after his team claimed its third Division III championship in four years. "To have them come off as champs, especially the seniors, this is special."
Admittedly, the Eagles didn't play terribly well through the first three periods of the game, but goalie John Bishop more than kept them in the game, as he controlled the puck in the zone and allowed his team to gather its momentum around him.
"He's been the best in the division all year long and he played like that tonight," Lane said of Bishop.
The Kennett coach also credited Alvirne for its intense effort.
"I give all the credit in the world to Alvirne," he said. "They were the better team for three periods."
In the early going, neither team was able to establish any momentum, as both goaltenders held their ground. Kevin Murphy, Cody Richard and Nick Massa had the best early chances for the Eagles, while Bishop also turned away a couple of chances for the Broncos at the other end.
Matt Kelly and Murphy just missed connections on a scoring chance and Massa sent a shot wide before Bishop came up with a couple of more saves to keep his team tied. Murphy and Dan Rivera continued the attack, while Massa also had a shot stopped and Dillon Smith sent a shot high of the net.
The Eagles got the game's first power play with 3:26 to go in the first period, but a Smith shot was all they could muster, as they took a penalty 16 seconds in and played four-on-four for the next 1:44.
That scenario worked out okay for the Eagles, however, as Murphy sent a long shot in on net with 2:17 to go in the period. The Alvirne keeper appeared to make the save, but the puck bounced out of his glove and into the net for a 1-0 lead. Chris King got the assist.
However, the Broncos, working with just 16 seconds of power play time less than a minute later, found the back of the net on the power play to tie the game at one.
Bishop made a couple of huge saves down the stretch of the first period, sending the teams to the locker rooms tied at one after one.
The second period began with Bishop again proving his worth, stopping a series of shots from the Broncos right out of the gate to keep the game tied. He also got a little defensive help from King and Kelly as the Eagles weathered the storm.
After James Gallo had a good look at the other end of the ice, Bishop again came up huge, stopping a puck that was accidentally put on net by his own defender, keeping things tied at one.
The Eagles got a power play chance with 8:26 to go in the period and King, Smith, Richard and Murphy all had scoring bids, but all were denied. Bishop also stopped a shorthanded bid from the Broncos.
The Eagles went down a man with 3:11 to go in the period and it was Bishop again coming up with a couple of good saves, while Kelly had a great defensive stop and Murphy had a shorthanded scoring bid denied and the Eagles killed off the advantage.
Just when it looked like the two teams were heading to the third tied at one, LaRusso took the puck down the left side, playing it off the boards to himself and fired it home from the faceoff circle with 42 seconds to go in the period for a 2-1 lead as the teams headed to the locker rooms.
The Eagles, however, could not make that lead stand up, as Alvirne answered just 27 seconds into the third period, tying the game at two.
LaRusso, Todd and Kelly had scoring chances, but they couldn't capitalize, but Gallo did. The speedy wing popped home a rebound with 9:56 to go in the game, bringing the Kennett crowd to its feet and staking the Eagles to a 3-2 lead.
Kennett looked to open the lead up, with Smith, Murphy, Gallo, Gabe Lee and LaRusso all getting good looks at the net in the following minutes, but nobody could put it past the Alvirne keeper.
Bishop had a couple more solid saves and Kelly continued his strong play with good defense on a two-on-one breakaway for the Broncos.
However, Alvirne managed to find a way through with just 3:05 to go in the game, tying the contest at three. Bishop withstood a couple more Bronco chances and Smith and Murphy had bids in the closing seconds denied, but the two teams headed to overtime with the score knotted at three.
Right out of the gate in the third, Massa and LaRusso both had great scoring chances, but they were denied. Alvirne came back with some solid chances, but Bishop was strong in the net, keeping the puck out of cage and stemming off the Broncos.
Lee and Brad Canavari had good plays in the defensive zone for the Eagles and with 7:10 to go in the overtime, the Eagles got a power play chance.
Todd, Murphy, LaRusso and company peppered the offensive zone with chances, but the puck would not go in and the Broncos killed off the penalty.
Kennett kept on pressuring but still couldn't break through and just as the clock ran under two minutes, the Eagles found themselves on the second power play of the extra frame.
This time, it was successful.
LaRusso had an early power play chance and Murphy had a bid, but with 26 seconds left on the clock and the possibility of a second overtime looming, LaRusso gave the huge Kennett crowd something it was looking for, as he snuck the puck into the back of the net on assist from Smith and Massa, giving the Eagles a 4-3 win and setting off a mad celebration on the ice.
"We worked real hard on the power play all year," Lane said. "We stayed back and tried to make strong plays. But in overtime, we got the puck in a little more."
The Kennett coach was full of praise for his team and the work the kids did to get to the point of playing in their fifth consecutive championship game.
"Five years in a row, seven out of 10," Lane said, "But you never know when you're going to come back."
Lane praised King for doing all of the little things after really "taking it personally" after last year's loss in the title game.
He also praised fellow assistant captain Kelly, who played close to 50 of the 60 minutes on Saturday.
"He never came off the ice," Lane said. "He was a top defenseman all year long.
"I put a lot on senior leadership and on days like this in March, it was there," the Eagle mentor said.
"On all ends, it was well-officiated, well-played by the kids," Lane continued. "We were lucky enough to move our feet and draw a few penalties."
The win gave Kennett its third Division III title in four years. The Eagles have appeared in five consecutive title games and seven of the 10 title games ever played in Division III.
Joshua Spaulding can be reached at email@example.com or 569-3126