With 25 seconds left in the NEPSAC Elite 8 Stuart/Corkery final on Sunday, the Salisbury bench went from jubilation to fear in a matter of seconds.
The fifth-seeded Crimson Knights were jumping up and down on the bench, ready to celebrate a 4-1 win over No. 3 Belmont Hill and the Stuart/Corkery championship, but senior assistant captain Dane Westen suddenly went down awkwardly head first into the boards.
A hush fell over what was an electric building for the next 15 minutes or so as both teams took a knee on the ice while Westen was being attended to. Salisbury players kneeled close to their teammate in a giant huddle. Westen was eventually taken off the ice on a stretcher to a standing ovation and the final 25 seconds were run off the clock.
It was the seventh title since 2006 for Salisbury (23-5), but it was anything but the usual joyous moment you expect when clinching a championship. Thankfully, Westen should be all right according to head coach Andrew Will and the team was able to smile and celebrate a bit on the ice with family once receiving the trophy.
“He’s got an upper back, neck thing, but he could move all his extremities, so I think he’s going to be okay, we just had to be careful,” Will said. “I never saw it. I honestly thought we had a penalty, but then the guys started saying Dane’s down on the ice. It’s obviously not how you want it to end, but this is a very special moment for our kids.
“Dane’s one of our leaders and we’re all obviously concerned about him, but this group battled all year. We were 5-4 going into Christmas and we lost one game since then. They just kept focusing every day and right down to those final moments tonight. I couldn’t be prouder.”
“It was an awkward way to end it, he’s an assistant captain and played a huge role as a senior, we all love him, we’re all giving him prayers and he helped us get here, so he’s a big part of this,” added goalie Austin McNicholas.
Belmont Hill (22-3-3) was rocking about 40 minutes before the game even started, but Salisbury quieted things down very quickly with two goals in the first five minutes.
Oliver Frontini got things going with an absolute snipe that went high over the blocker side of Sam Scopa (13 saves). Frontini immediately celebrated despite a bit of uncertainty as the puck ricocheted back out.
Just a few moments later, Dylan Hryckowian left a drop pass down below the goal line for Ryan Walsh. Walsh let a no-angle shot go that somehow snuck in off the back of Scopa to make it 2-0 with 14:27 left in the first. Belmont Hill cut it to 2-1 when Brock Cummings buried a loose puck in front.
Salisbury took a 3-1 lead to the third period thanks to a goal in the second from Hryckowian. In that third period, the Crimson Knights had to kill off two different power plays as the physical intensity was taken to a whole other level.
Ultimately, Salisbury was able to limit Belmont Hill’s opportunities and eventually got an empty net goal from Ben Poitras with 1:28 remaining to seal the deal.
Salisbury continued its reign of dominance over the last 15 years. Winning this title is one thing, but being in the hunt almost every year speaks volumes about the program.
“It’s a testament to the kids that come through Salisbury,” Will added. “They’re kids who are obviously very passionate and motivated on the hockey side, but they give it everything they’ve got in all areas.
“One of the challenges for our kids sometimes is we’ve had success, so there’s that tendency to compare themselves to teams that came before. This group did such a great job writing their own chapter.”