Sports editor emeritus
PAWTUCKET — This is what great sports rivalries are all about: Anything Lincoln can do, Cumberland wants to do it better. Even if the difference between these two outstanding hockey teams is nearly negligible, the Clippers want to outdo their neighborhood rivals on the ice.
“It’s important to the kids that we finished undefeated in the regular season,” Cumberland coach Mark Andreozzi admitted on Saturday night after his Clippers rallied for a 2-1 triumph over Lincoln that capped an 18-0 performance during the Division II regular season. “It’s pretty rare when that happens, although Lincoln did it last year.”
The Lions won the D-II state title with a 23-0-1 record last season, their only blemish a 3-3 tie with Cumberland. This year, Cumberland handed Lincoln its only two losses in league play, both by 2-1 margins. Lincoln finished 16-2 in the regular season.
The two teams went at each other like the playoffs had already started before a packed house at Lynch Arena. Lincoln outshot Cumberland 13-10 in a well-played first period that featured end-to-end rushes by both teams and sharp goaltending.
The Clippers came out and dominated the second period, outshooting Lincoln 17-7, but fell behind 1-0 when Lions freshman forward Dylan Anderson beat goalie Leo Lake with a hard shot from 15 feet in front of the goal.
Cumberland saved its unbeaten season on third-period goals by Kyle McKenna and Jake Salisbury. McKenna’s goal, his eighth of the season, came from the left side, near the blue line, a hard and low shot that went through a maze of bodies past screened Lincoln goalie Chris Leclaire. The goal came just 89 seconds into the third period.
Cumberland kept the pressure on until it got the game-winner from Salisbury with 5:52 left in regulation. It was Salisbury’s team-leading 15th goal of the season.
“That goal came right after a face-off,” Andreozzi admitted. “We had a play set up. We won the face-off cleanly and that gave us a chance to make a play. Jake got off a good shot that beat their goalie.”
Cumberland, which outshot Lincoln 35-25, kept the pressure on for the final 5:52, to the point where Lincoln could only pull its goalie with 28 seconds left in the game, and then only for a few seconds before Cumberland forced a face-off in the Lions’ end.
The game lived up to the great expectations raised by these two stellar teams. Action went up and down the ice in the first period, when Lincoln outshot Cumberland 13-10. The officials would only call one two-minute penalty (on Lincoln) during the entire 45 minutes of action. The rivalry is intense between these two teams but very clean.
“Lincoln just keeps coming at you,” Andreozzi said. “They are very well-coached and they never let up.”
Cumberland came out like a team possessed in the second period. The Clippers controlled the first few minutes, keeping the puck in Lincoln’s end for long stretches. McKenna went in alone on Leclaire just 80 seconds into the period but shot into the goalie’s pads. A minute later, Cumberland defenseman Jamie Casilli unleashed a hard shot on goal that was turned away by Leclaire, who made 33 saves on the night, many of them extremely difficult efforts with Clipper forwards perched on his doorstep, waiting to swipe at any loose puck that got away from the junior net-minder.
Lincoln forward Griffin Hevey broke the pressure by creating a turnover at mid-ice and sending the puck into Cumberland’s zone for 30 seconds, only to see Cumberland regain control. Right winger Liam Curren and left winger Jason Donnelly both peppered Leclaire with strong shots on goal. Freshman winger Bryan Colburn shot one into Leclaire’s stomach.
The Clippers were putting a lot of shots on Lincoln’s goalie. Most of them were right at Leclaire, into his mid-section or off his pads.
Lincoln kept skating hard, trying to create chances and was rewarded with 3:17 left in the middle stanza when Anderson got the puck 15 feet in front of Cumberland’s net. The skilled freshman teed up a shot and drilled the puck over goalie Leo Lake’s right shoulder for a stunning score that gave the Lions a 1-0 lead. That would be the only score Lake yielded in an otherwise stellar performance that featured 24 saves, including several high-difficulty efforts in traffic.
Cumberland went on the game’s only power play with 2:26 left in the period. Casilli, a strong presence at the blue line, pounded a hard shot on goal. With 47 seconds left, the Clippers nearly scored, sending the puck to the goal-mouth as the net came off its moorings. An official was right on top of the play and ruled the puck did not cross the goal line.
The frustration could have been mounting on Cumberland but the Clippers kept on coming, dominating action in the early minutes of the third period until they tied and then went ahead on goals by McKenna and Salisbury. Center Greg Wellington won the face-off and got the puck to Salisbury for the game-winner.
“It is great that we finished undefeated in the regular season,” Andreozzi said after the game. “The players are really happy. As coaches, we are more interested in how well the team is playing, how hard the players are working out on the ice, things like that. But it is something special, to finish the regular season unbeaten.
“Our work is just beginning,” the coach added. “There are a lot of good teams in the playoffs who can give us tough games. We have to be ready.”
Cumberland opens the best-of-three quarterfinals on Friday night at Adelard Arena against Middletown. Lincoln will also be in action that night against a 12-6 North Smithfield team that gave Cumberland a tough game on Friday night, losing by a 3-1 margin.