Talk about improbable. Junior goaltender Kyle Martin made 35 saves, junior defenseman Brian Groom scored a game-winning shorthanded goal with 12:02 to play and St. John’s Prep completed its unlikely run to the Division 1A championship with a 2-1 win against four-time defending tournament champion Malden Catholic Sunday night at TD Garden.
The No. 4 Eagles (18-5-1) claimed the third State Championship in program history, and first in 30 years, while snapping No. 2 Malden Catholic’s (19-2-2) 22-game 1A winning streak, thereby denying the Lancers’ bid to join Catholic Memorial as the only teams to win five consecutive 1A championships.
After ousting Catholic Conference rival B.C. High in a two-game quarterfinal sweep, the Eagles stunned previously-unbeaten Springfield Cathedral in the semifinals. Only MC stood in St. John’s path and the Eagles were not to be denied.
Prep coach Kris Hanson credited the leadership of his seniors and captains for guiding a young team — only five players graduate — through the year. In this season of remarkable growth and maturation, it seemed pre-ordained the Eagles would eventually have to go through MC to reach the top.
Predictably, the Lancers displayed the heart of a champion and did not go quietly.
Trailing 2-0 and with the extra attacker on, Jake Witkowski snuck an odd-angle backhander from the low left slot between Martin’s pads for a power play goal with 1:00 to play, creating the potential for a frenzied final minute. St. John’s refused to buckle.
One final face-off to Martin’s left with 2.7 seconds remaining yielded a testing shot by MC defenseman Pat Harrington that Martin handled as the horn blared. Bedlam ensued and Hanson flashed his best Cheshire Cat smile throughout the post-game awards ceremony.
Malden Catholic had the better of a fast-paced first period but many of its 13 shots came from the perimeter. When Martin denied Austin Goldstein bearing down from the left side in the final minute, the teams exited scoreless. Hanson said the message between periods was simple.
“We had to be more aggressive (coming out) because they were coming at us so hard, so we had to push back,” he said.
The teams swapped glittering but fruitless chances through much of the second period. At 9:32 McNamara partially fanned on a breakaway, then shoveled a second bid into the pads of MC keeper Kyle Casey (22 saves). With 7:04 left, Martin was well-positioned for Matt Filipe’s re-direct of a shot from the high slot. And, with 5:30 to go in the period, Prep’s Kyle Lynch just missed converting Kyle Hentosh’s deft dish at the right post.
McNamara broke the tie at 11:22 of the second period. Tyler Scearbo’s left-to-right delivery through the slot set up a close-range one-timer and McNamara buried it. Nick Latham also had an assist.
“We forechecked them hard and Tyler got the puck and flipped it across to me. I was fortunate enough to be open backdoor with no one near me,” said McNamara, who then nearly doubled the lead two minutes later when his re-direct of Scearbo’s 3-on-1 dish beat Casey but fluttered off the crossbar.
Scearbo set up Groom’s game-winner with the Eagles’ Tim Usalis off for holding. His diagonal back pass found Groom closing from the right point and he laced a slap shot between Casey’s pads.
“When I saw Ty working down low and he brought it out front and no one was there, he sent it back and I shot it as hard as I could,” Groom said.
Meanwhile, Martin frustrated MC’s shooters as the game wore on with his calm, composed positional play. The Lancers’ Jake Adams got a glorious look from the mid slot midway through the period and was visibly upset when Martin gobbled it up with ease.
With 5:04 to play, Martin turned back Filipe’s good look from the right circle. Moments later he got help when the Lancers’ standout junior forward rang the post.
“Kyle was on point all night. We have such confidence in him. He was huge,” said Hanson.
MC had won the first regular-season meeting, 4-2, and the teams battled to a 2-2 tie two weeks later. On this night, an Eagles’ team which began the season with multiple questions, came up with all the right answers.
(Salem News Sports Editor Phil Stacey contributed to this report)