For a few scary moments, it looked like Zach Speed wasn’t going to be able to scrape himself off the ice.
The victim of a hard check into the boards at the end of the second period of Saturday night’s FCIAC showdown with St. Joseph, a vicious hit-from-behind that drew no penalty but left Staples junior forward prostrate on the ice with a dislocated shoulder for a good five minutes, Speed looked for sure like he was going to end the night in a hospital gown.
Instead, Speed had his shoulder popped back into place during intermission and headed back onto the ice for the third period.
“He went back and said, ‘You’re not keeping me off the ice,’” Staples head coach Ralph Unker said.
It was that type of fearless determination — as well as a stellar performance by senior goaltender Riley MacDonald — that kept the injury-riddled Wreckers thinking upset against the deeper, stronger and more talented Cadets right down the final horn.
Unfortunately, good fortune ended up smiling on St. Joseph, which used a fluke goal at the end of the first period and a power-play tally in the third to post a 2-1 victory at The Rinks at Shelton.
MacDonald made 48 saves to keep things close, and senior forward Forrest Savage gave the Wreckers a surprising 1-0 lead at 13:49 of the first period after tipping in a pass from defenseman Eric Zurmuehle out of the right corner.
But St. Joseph scored with 0.6 seconds left on the clock in the first period to tie it 1-1 then tallied the game-winner at 4:20 of the third on a power-play goal by high-scoring junior Christian Keator, who banged home a loose puck on the right post after a long battle in front of the net.
The tying goal came off the stick of Matt Julian, whose odd-angled shot out of the right corner deflected off teammate John Ferguson and slowly trickled through the pads of MacDonald.
“You take that one away and the goal they scored on the power play is the tying goal not the game-winner,” said Unker, whose team fell to 6-2 overall.
Still, with five players out with injuries, including leading scorer Aaron Liu (broken ankle), leaving the Wreckers with just nine forwards and three healthy defensemen, just getting within earshot of the defending Division I state tournament runner-up felt like leaving with a victory.
“The guys just kept battling,” Unker said. “We didn’t have a great forecheck. We didn’t have much of a back-check and all. We just hung in there. It was almost like a heavyweight fight with Riley taking all the punches. We lost the game, but it was a dynamite effort. I couldn’t be more proud of my guys.”
Despite finishing with a 51-16 advantage in shots with a deep team that enabled the Cadets to roll four lines of forwards and seven defensemen, St. Joseph head coach Marty Crouse was left shaking his head by an effort the felt was not indicative of his team’s talent level.
“We have to find a better way to do things,” said Crouse, whose team is now 7-4 overall. “It’s just not good hockey. It’s not what we should be producing. It’s very frustrating.”
The final minute was a microcosm of St. Joseph’s season thus far. Savage broke down the right side on a partial breakaway and was stopped before he could get a shot off on a sliding poke-check by junior defenseman Sean Smith. Senior defenseman Dan Castorina was also there to help out, but in doing so, left two Staples forwards all alone in front of the net.
St. Joseph also needed a block by Castorina on a shot by Ryan Gawricki and two faceoff wins deep in its own zone to ward off the Wreckers with an extra skater on the ice in the final minute.
“By no means was one goal a cushion,” Crouse said. “We’re making so many mental mistakes right now it’s mind-boggling. We’re 7-4 right now, but we could be 10-1 if we played up to our potential. But when is it going to click in?”
Crouse was much more impressed with the gritty performance of the Wreckers, who lost seven players from its Division III runner-up team, including all-state goalie Luke Andriuk and forward Kyle Wehmhoff, one of the most prolific scorers in Staples history who left during the off-season to test his skills in prep school hockey.
“Their goalie played well, and they played up to their potential,” Crouse said. “If I was one of their players, I would be very happy right now.”
MacDonald had the biggest reason to smile after stopping 15 of 16 shots in the first period to keep things close. He also made five saves on the power-play that eventually produced the game-winning goal by Keator (12 goals, 11 assists).
“He’s brought it every game,” Unker said. “He’s leading by example and doing an outstanding job.”
Good enough to be the next Division III all-state goalie?
“He’s go my vote,” Unker said. “I don’t know who else could beat him out.”
Goaltender Ron Johnson made 15 saves to post the victory for St. Joseph.