SALEM, Mass. -- Championship victories aren't supposed to come easy. Saturday's MASCAC title game was the exception to the rule.
Visiting Plymouth State (14-11-2) scored first, but the top-seeded host, Salem State (16-9-2), rattled off three goals in the second and two more in the third to clinch the program's second MASCAC championship with a 5-1 win at Rockett Arena.
“To win this game, a championship game, is a big deal,” 33rd-year Salem State head coach William O'Neill (Salem, Mass.) said. “I knew the team didn’t like the way the season ended last year (with a triple-overtime loss in the semifinals) and there wasn’t a good taste to that.”
“As the year went on, we got better. ... We lost games, but we stuck with it. Through that process, I am really proud of these guys for what they did and how they finished tonight. Plymouth State has had a good season and this was a championship-caliber game ”
The Panthers dominated the start with a consistent flurry in the offensive zone in the first period and took a 1-0 lead at the 8:21 mark.
Sophomore Tieg Alward took the initial shot on net, but Salem State senior Ryan Sutliffe left a juicy rebound out front for Ryan Callahan (Londonderry, N.H.). He knocked home the second goal of his freshman season.
"It was a pretty calculated start for both teams," O’Neill commented. "It was a close-checking, tight game. In a game like this, the emotions are so high and you have to control them. Scoring first is big. We had chances and didn’t, they had chances and didn’t. … We had to at least neutralize that."
O'Neill's speech after the first period must have been a very inspiring one, as the Vikings scored all three goals in the second to take command. SSU's first two goals came just a minute apart in the middle period, both off the sticks of New England natives.
At the 3:55 mark, Chris Mastropietro (Revere, Mass.) scored a wrister from the middle of the slot to tie the score for the Vikings. Off a feed from former Valley Junior Warrior and SSU rookie John Needham (Medford, Mass.), Mastropietro made up for a costly penalty early on in the game with the eighth goal of his sophomore season.
"It was pretty intense," Mastropietro said. "It was all hard work today. That's all we needed. It came down to who was going to battle harder and we came out on top. We were ready to go. It felt like they started getting sluggish and we really started to step on their throat."
Senior Mark MacDonald (Norwell, Mass.) and sophomore Gabriel Cromp traded passes at the points on the power play goal that gave SSU a 2-1 lead at 4:55. On the right side, Cromp let a heavy wrist shot go through traffic and its found its way behind PSU sophomore goaltender Gordon Ceasar (23 saves).
As it turned out, the rout was officially turned on at 14:21 of the second as Mastropietro found freshman Alex Minter (Peabody, Mass.) on the right wing for a wrist shot that danced through traffic for his 11th goal of the season.
Mastropietro, who actually switched wings with Minter on Needham's line for the first time ever during Friday's practice, finished off his first career hat trick with both of SSU's goals in the third.
Cromp got original credit for his second goal of the game at 12:42 as his shot from the center point bounced off Ceasar's shoulder, off the crossbar and into the net. After review, Mastropietro got a piece of the puck in a scrum in the middle of the slot and the scoring was changed.
The scoring change allowed the former Revere Patriot, Mastropietro, to cap off the trio with 1:39 remaining in regulation. Sutliffe started the play with a head-man feed into the neutral zone where Mastropietro took the puck in stride and lifted a wrister into the top corner of the net.
"I was waiting," Mastropietro said. "It just came and I got the opportunity. I thought they were going to poke it away but when I got it off, I knew (it was going in). It was a nice, hard shot and I couldn't be happier."
Sutliffe and the SSU defense was virtually lights out for the final two-thirds of the game. After allowing the opening goal and 12 shots in the first period, the Panthers were shutout in the final two frames and managed just five shots on goal.
“We’ve been pretty close to winning all three years I’ve played here and just getting over that hump, finally, is unbelievable,” Sutliffe said. “They were almost overmatching us at the start ... but then the defense was unbelievable in front of me over the second and third.”
SSU won the first-ever MASCAC tournament in 2010, but the league did not receive an automatic NCAA bid in the first two years of play. The Vikings will find out who their first-round opponent is Sunday night at 10 p.m.
“It’s unbelievable,” Minter said with a smile after winning a conference title in his first collegiate season. “I don’t remember the last time I’ve won a championship in anything. I might have won something in baseball when I was little, but it hasn’t been in a long time. It’s a great feeling.”