Girls hockey wins thriller vs. Winchester, on to semis

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The Canton girls celebrate in the locker room after their 3-2 win vs. Winchester.

The Canton girls celebrate in the locker room after their 3-2 win vs. Winchester.

The center of the Canton sporting universe shifted to Gallo Ice Arena in Bourne last evening as the Canton High girls varsity ice hockey team — the only squad left standing in a winter season full of outstanding performances — prepared to do battle with fellow Ice House tenant Westwood in the MIAA Division 2 girls hockey semifinals.

The 14th seeded Bulldogs, led by veteran coach Dennis Aldrich, and the seventh-seeded Wolverines, led by CHS teacher and counselor Ed Amico, were set to face off at 7:15 p.m. with the winner advancing to the state championship game on Sunday at the TD Boston Garden. (See next week’s paper for recap.) The other semifinal game was also scheduled for last night at Gallo and pitted top-seeded and undefeated Notre Dame Academy (20-0-1) against fourth-seeded Methuen/Tewksbury (19-1-3).

The bracket’s No. 2 and No. 3 seeds, Pembroke (19-1-2) and Shrewsbury (19-3-0), were both vanquished in earlier rounds by Westwood and Canton, respectively — two of the hottest girls hockey teams in the state.

In the lady Bulldogs’ case, that hot streak has been building for quite some time now, and it reached a new apex over the past four weeks — a stretch in which the Canton girls went 6-0 (3-0 in the playoffs) while outscoring the opposition 20-6.

“They just have so much confidence in themselves,” noted Aldrich after their latest triumph, a 3-2 quarterfinal win on Saturday over longtime playoff nemesis Winchester. “It’s almost to a point where it’s not if [they will win], but when and how.”

In the Winchester game, both the ‘when and how’ proved to be about as thrilling as it gets as senior captain Rebecca Eckler knocked home the game winner with 10.8 seconds remaining on the game clock. Eckler, who also scored one of Canton’s two game-tying goals late in the second period, finished off a memorable sequence that started with sophomore Maggie Malloy winning a faceoff in the Winchester zone. Malloy got the puck to sophomore winger Lauren Fitzpatrick, who threw a shot at the net that deflected off the goalie and found a perfectly positioned Eckler waiting at the top of the crease.

The sequence was especially sweet as it featured the team’s three all-star forwards executing at the highest level with the entire season on the line. While Fitzpatrick has found her groove offensively since shifting to the second line midway through the season, Aldrich decided to go with his original top-line trio after calling a timeout with 15 seconds to go and the game tied at 2-2. “And boy did they put it together in those last 15 seconds,” he said.

And while designed plays rarely go exactly as planned in hockey, Aldrich said the game-winning play was “eerily close” to what they had talked about during the timeout. “We had Maggie at center and I wanted Lauren on the right,” he said. “We were looking for a shot-pass to Rebecca, and Lauren got the shot to the net and the rebound sat right there on the backdoor right where Rebecca was.”

It wasn’t just those last few seconds that impressed the Canton coach, however. The game as a whole lived up to its billing as the two squads traded chances and goals in a close-checking, back-and-forth battle.

“It was just a great playoff girls hockey game,” said Aldrich. “Winchester blocks a lot of shots and they’re a very hard-nosed team, but I think our talent levels were certainly even. It was pretty much anyone’s game and I’m just glad it ended up being us.”

In addition to the two goals by Eckler, Fitzpatrick also got on the scoreboard early in the second period while Malloy chipped in with two assists. Kendra Farrelly also assisted on one of the goals and had another “outstanding” game for the Bulldogs, according to Aldrich.

On the defensive end, several players stepped up over the course of the game, but the standout against Winchester was sophomore Leah McClellan. Junior goalie Colleen Kelleher turned in another strong performance in net and finished with 15 saves.

Aldrich also made a point to thank the fans and the Canton athletics community for their “incredible” support throughout the season and especially in the playoffs. Even the teams they battle against in the SEMGHL have been sending the Canton coaches words of encouragement during their memorable tournament run.

“They’re all rooting for us,” said Aldrich prior to last night’s semifinal matchup against Westwood. “As I told the girls, ‘They see something special in you guys.’ I don’t know if it always translates into wins or not, but a lot of people see it.”

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