Bobby Clewer received one of those roars from the crowd that you only hear in the State Tournament. Winthropâ€™s senior forward had dramatically tied the game at 2-2 just 26 seconds after Wilmington had gone ahead in the third period.
Clewer athletically pounced on teammate Mitch Paulsonâ€™s shot that hit the post and rocketed the puck past the Wilmington goaltender. Chris Page also drew an assist on the electrifying tally.
With 8:31 left in the game, Winthrop had regained the momentum and the dream of advancing to the TD Garden for the state final was within reach.
However, Wilmingtonâ€™s Dalton Rolli would score the next goal with 2:08 remaining before the Wildcats put it away on an open netter a minute later.
Wilmington thus ended the Vikingsâ€™ quest for a state championship by a 4-2 margin in the Division 2 North final Monday night at the Tsongas Center in Lowell.
Everyone expected a hard-fought defensive battle and thatâ€™s what ensued in the first two periods. Winthrop goaltender Steven Waites had pitched three shutouts in wins over Tewksbury, Boston Latin, and Saugus. Wilmington goalie Drew Foley had allowed three goals in wins over Newburyport, top-seeded Lynnfield, and North Andover.
Senior captain Chris LeBlanc brought the Vikings fans to their feet with the gameâ€™s first goal, offering one more display why he will leave the program as one of its best players ever. Dan Eruzione assisted on the goal.
Wilmington (tied the game at 1-1 with 4:44 left in the second period. Luke Foley managed to tip the puck past Waites and into the net, breaking the Winthrop defenseâ€™s postseason streak of 160 minutes without allowing a goal.
Jake Rogers gave Wilmington a 2-1 lead when he took the puck along the boards at center ice and advanced swiftly toward the net in relatively uncontested fashion for the go-ahead goal. Clewer answered right away on a beautiful goal but Wilmington scored the next two goals to end the Vikingsâ€™ season.
Wilmington coach Steve Scanlon said that the Wildcats initially had problems with Winthropâ€™s stingy trap defense.
â€œWe had a lot of trouble with the trap early,â€ said Scanlon. â€œWe knew it was coming and we were a little jittery out there and there was some panicking. We were fighting that trap. Thatâ€™s effective hockey. Thatâ€™s their game â€“ turn it over and capitalize with that good speed they have.â€
Wilmington (No. 8 seed, 15-4-5 record) made its breakthrough in the second period, scoring a goal to tie the game.
â€œIt took us awhile to unlock the trap, but once we did, I thought we played pretty well,â€ said Scanlon. â€œThe goal was to get pucks to the net â€“ I know Winthrop hadnâ€™t been scored on the whole tournament and on the same page, we hadnâ€™t been behind the whole tournament. Our goaltender made a couple of big saves in the last minute. And [Chris] LeBlanc is quite a player â€“ he gives you a lot of trouble out there.â€
Winthrop coach Dale Dunbar tried to sum up the unexpected finish to what had been a thrilling post-season ride. Winthrop fans had rallied behind this team and were hoping for a Garden visit on Sunday and a chance for the schoolâ€™s first hockey title in 36 years.
â€œIt kind of tough to put into words,â€ said Dunbar. â€œWe battled so hard for the last four games in the tournament. To lose in that fashion, 2-2 in the third period; we were just on the wrong side of a bounce. They were very opportunistic and theyâ€™re a good hockey team. It was a great hockey game. I thought our kids played tremendously and my hatâ€™s off to them.â€
Dunbar felt that Clewerâ€™s goal was huge at the time.
â€œI thought we showed a lot of character after Wilmington scored the second goal and we came right back and tied it,â€ said Dunbar.Â â€œWe answered the bell right away.â€
Dunbar praised Waites for his efforts in net.
â€œYou donâ€™t get here without goaltending â€“ itâ€™s pitching in baseball, quarterbacking in football, thatâ€™s the position you have to have on the back end and Waites was there for us. He shut the door an awful lot in the State Tournament. All you can ask from your goaltender is to give you a chance to win in the third period and Steven certainly gave us that. Heâ€™s been great.â€
Dunbar also singled out the play of LeBlanc.
â€œChris LeBlanc is a real special player,â€ said Dunbar. â€œHeâ€™s a great leader and a great kid. Heâ€™s very well respected. His skill set is very high and if he continues to commit himself on and off the ice, he can have a nice career in front of him. The same thing with Danny Eruzione – heâ€™s not the biggest kid in the world, but he plays with a big heart. He plays big and heâ€™s very opportunistic and heâ€™s a guy you want on your team.â€
LeBlanc stopped for a brief interview outside the locker room before boarding the bus outside the arena.
â€œIt was a great season, not the result we wanted, but Iâ€™m proud of my teammates,â€ said LeBlanc. â€œWe had a great effort tonight and Iâ€™m going to miss playing for Winthrop.â€
Superintendent of Schools John Macero congratulated the Winthrop High boys hockey team on a successful season. The Vikings finish with a 15-7-2 record.
â€œIt was a great season and it was exciting to watch the team advance in the tournament to this point and extremely proud of all of our players.