As the seniors on the Tewksbury hockey team reflected on the motivation that helped drive them to the school’s latest Division 2 state championship, which they wrapped up Sunday with a 3-1 victory over Canton at TD Garden, it was easy to look back to one of the school’s previous visits to Causeway Street.
The last time the Division 2 state championship was settled on the Garden ice, it also was Tewksbury and Canton squaring off for all the marbles. Canton jumped out to a big first-period lead and rolled to victory, and the freshmen from that Tewksbury squad have stewed upon it ever since.
“You work all season for one game,” senior captain Jason Cooke said. “Canton was a pretty good team that year. We left pretty heartbroken, but I think the day we left, we knew we were coming back.”
And back the Redmen came, with a vengeance. Senior captain Caden Connors had two goals and an assist and Tewksbury held on to capture the program’s third championship overall and first since 2011.
“It feels pretty, pretty good,” said Connors, whose empty net goal with 1:01 to play finally allowed the championship feeling to sink in. “It’s amazing.”
Added Tewksbury coach Derek Doherty: “These guys right here, they had one thing in mind for the last couple of years, and that was to get here and to win this. And to be able to play against Canton again was, I think, a big deal for them.”
Canton, of course, also was declared co-champion in 2020 when the state final was canceled, and entered the day with 13 consecutive tournament wins. The Bulldogs also had won 22 straight games this season following an 0-2-1 start, but coach Brian Shuman wasn’t taking anything for granted despite the disappointing loss – only the program’s fourth overall in four seasons.
“Give me this any day of the week,” Shuman said. “To be here and give these kids a chance to play in this wonderful place, this amazing venue. It’s just great to be back playing postseason sports … there’s nothing like it.”
Tewksbury came out strong, putting the game’s first five shots on net in the opening five minutes. The Redmen finally cashed in when Connors made a strong rush to the net, only to have Canton freshman goalie Colin Davis poke the puck away. But sophomore Matthew Cooke was in perfect position to clean up the rebound and catch Davis out of position, sliding it in for the 1-0 lead at the 5:05 mark.
Canton started to settle in a bit from there, but another nifty piece of teamwork by Aaron Connelly sent Jason Cooke in on a partial break, which drew a Canton slash.
The Redmen struggled to get any good looks for much of the power play, until Connors took things into his own hands. The Dual County/Merrimack Valley 2 Player of the Year dangled between three Canton defenders down the slot, but a fake on Davis and slid home a backhander into the vacated net just as he was getting knocked down.
Canton’s best chance to get on the board came in the final seconds of the period as senior Brennen Pecararo tried to duplicate Connors’ efforts with a brilliant rush to the net. But Tewksbury junior goalie Ben O’Keefe stood firm and denied the chance.
“That was a point of emphasis for us,” Connors said. “We thought that if we got ahead, with our goalie Benny and the way we play defense, we knew that we’d have a good chance to win the game.”
It was just a precursor to what was to come for O’Keefe, who finished with 23 saves, but made several critical ones in the second period to keep the momentum in the Redmen’s favor as Canton started to turn up the pressure. He stoned a pair of shots in rapid succession, the second a big rebound in the slot. Then when Canton went on its first power play, O’Keefe alertly kicked out the pad to deny AJ Thomas, who snuck in the back door from the right point and got his stick on a diagonal pass through the slot for a quick tip.
“He’s a different bird,” said Doherty, who has sung O’Keefe’s praises throughout the season. “I’ve had a lot of goalies. He’s composed, nothing bothers him, he loves playing the game. He’s excited before the game, it’s fun to watch. And he’s really good, he’s quick with his legs, he’s focused. I think very highly of him.
“I think he was the player of the game tonight, to be honest with you. If he didn’t play the way he did in the second period, it was a different game.”
Canton did finally get to O’Keefe with 7:13 to play as Thomas took a diagonal pass through the low slot and quickly snapped it past O’Keefe’s pad. While the Bulldogs pressed for the equalizer, O’Keefe and the Redmen defense wouldn’t crack again.
“When we did get a couple of opportunities against them, their goalie made some great saves,” Shuman said. “But it was a heck of a hockey game. I’m really proud of our guys. It could have unraveled when we were down 2-0. We fought, but credit to a great hockey team. They’re one of the best in the state, regardless of division.”
Still, there were some tense moments late until Connors took an outlet pass and had nothing but open ice and an empty net in front of him.
“When I got the puck and I got across the red line, I said, ‘I’m just going to shoot this thing,'” Connors said. “And when it went in, I was just looking up and seeing the whole crowd. It was a pretty crazy feeling.”
After the celebration had subsided, Cooke and Connors reflected not only on the 2019 loss to Canton, but also on the support from their town, and they remembered being part of that in 2011, when the Redmen beat Franklin in overtime in the same building for the D2 state title.
“Being a little kid in 2011, watching them win it here,” Connors said, “it feels pretty cool to win one for the town.”
Said Cooke: “When you come to the games, the whole town comes out. It more than a hockey game out there. The town is really proud of us, and all the players who have played before this team. It’s more than a game, we’re not just playing for ourselves, we’re playing for the town too. I hope they’re proud of us now.
“I hope there’s a little kid up there like we were. This is a dream come true for me, and I’m sure for Caden, too. I hope at least one kid up there can go to bed tonight and say, ‘I want to be that, I want to do that when I’m in high school.’ “