Salisbury senior co-captain and Yale University commit Evan Smith hopes to score many goals at Ingalls Rink in his collegiate career, but his final prep hockey goal – a game-winner 15:19 into overtime in the championship game of the Stuart/Corkery Elite 8 Tournament at Ingalls – will probably be one he always remembers.
Thanks to Smith’s overtime heroics, Salisbury won its second consecutive Stuart/Corkery title via the 3-2 overtime win over Gunnery Sunday night.
Smith’s goal came off a rush started by his twin brother, Mitchell, and ended with a tic-tac-toe passing play featuring senior Derek Barach that opened up some space on the side of the net for Evan to score off a wrister from the right circle.
“It’s hard to script a better championship game,” said Salisbury coach Andrew Will. “The fact that Evan scored the final goal and that Mitch and Derek were involved in the goal being scored, it was only fitting given how important those guys have been to our team over the course of the season.”
Earlier in the game, it seemed that a different Salisbury player would play the hero. Junior forward Kale Kane scored both of Salisbury’s regulation goals on power plays resulting from hard Gunnery hits along the boards in the second period. The first hit, a boarding call on Gunnery’s Nick Quillin 3:57 into the second period, left junior forward Vimal Sukumaran facedown on the ice for a few minutes before he was able to skate off on his own.
Salisbury quickly put a shot on net on the man-advantage and Kane dove through a crowd fighting for the rebound to slip the loose puck under Gunnery goaltender Matthew Schneider 15 seconds into the power play.
Later in the period, after a charging call against Gunnery’s Alec Mehr left Salisbury junior forward Sean McCarthy (Pembroke, Mass.) shaken up, Kane converted on a cross-crease pass from junior forward Matthew Muzyka (Cheshire, Conn.) to help Salisbury to a 2-0 lead with 9:32 left in the second period.
“[Kane] really was a catalyst for us in that game,” Will said. “He scored those two goals which were tremendously big for us and really put us in a position to have a chance to win that game, and I thought that his physical presence out there as well, he was tremendously strong with the puck on his stick and without the puck.”
But in the third period, Mehr made up for his previous penalty when he scored on a power-play for Gunnery to cut the Salisbury lead in half with 5:29 left in regulation. Gunnery tied the game with 2:02 remaining when senior co-captain Joey Fallon beat Salisbury goaltender Mitchell Datz on a wrister from the lower right circle.
“I thought in the third period, our guys played with more confidence for the first time,” said Gunnery coach Chris Baudo. “We were able to pin them in a little bit deeper. Then I think you’re fortunate to get one, the momentum kind of shifts a little bit and guys start to believe even more and we were fortunate to get that second one.”
Although late-game meltdowns are typically demoralizing, Salisbury – who went to double overtime in its quarterfinal win over Cushing – was able to refocus before the extra frame. The Knights controlled play throughout the overtime period despite being consistently frustrated by Schneider, who stopped 34 of the 37 shots he faced Sunday and was at his best in overtime.
“He’s been great for us all year and he was our MVP [Sunday],” Baudo said. “He kept us in it when we needed him to keep us in it and then in overtime he made some huge saves that gave us a couple of chances to maybe bury one.”
But despite Schneider’s best efforts, it was Salisbury who buried one first. Salisbury has now won three of the last six Elite 8 championships, and although its final record of 24-1-4 makes it seem as if Salisbury coasted to this most recent championship, that was far from the truth. The Knights found a way to win through 11 one-goal games and eight overtime finishes to earn their spot as the best in New England once again.
“In some ways, it felt like a more trying season than just losing the one game because it took us a while to really come together and hit our stride,” Will said. “This team’s willingness to come and work, to get a little bit better every single day really paid off and I feel strongly that by the end of the season there we were playing our best hockey.”