PROVIDENCE – Lincoln High wasn’t at its best against the Prout School on Thursday night.
Not only did the Lions go 0-for-4 on the power play for the game, but during their last man advantage with less than six minutes left, it not only failed to capitalize, but yielded the Crusaders a shorthanded goal.
But thanks largely to the play of sophomore goalie Chris Leclaire and his 28 stunning saves, the Lions survived with a 3-2 verdict over Prout in the initial game of this best-of-three R.I. Division II Tournament championship series at Brown University's Meehan Auditorium.
Now an amazing 22-1-1 on the campaign, they can clinch the state title with one more win, and they’ll have that opportunity when they take on the Crusaders (19-8-0) again at Meehan at 2 p.m. on Saturday.
Head coach Jim Riel didn't mince words during the post-game speech in the Lions’ jubilant dressing room: “Kudos to our goalie; he kept us in it,” Riel told his team.
“Overall, the boys found a way to win. They did it, and it's because Chris was unbelievable.
“He earned every one of those saves,” he said. “On more than a few occasions, we left him out to dry. We gave up too many odd-man rushes and left guys in front of the net alone, but he answered the bell every single time.
“After the game, I told the kids there were two positives to come out of it: First, Chris stood on his head to win this for us; and, second, and most importantly, as a team, we figured out a way to win a huge game. That's an intangible that not everyone knows how to do.”
While Leclaire anchored the defense, senior forward Ryan Krohto scored two goals to lead the offense, with classmate Nick Moreau recording what proved to be the clincher with just 6:41 left in regulation.
On the play, after junior Tyler Duquette had fed senior Jerzy Polak with a pass in front of Prout freshman net minder Austin Gemma, Moreau fought multiple Crusaders for possession and eventually lifted a backhand over the prone goalie.
That gave Lincoln a seemingly safe 3-1 advantage, and things got even bleaker for Prout when with 5:56 remaining, officials whistled their senior forward Mike Reilly for interference, giving the Lions a power play. But 18 seconds in, Prout senior defenseman Matt Filardo rifled a pass to junior Aaron Deady deep in the Lions' right corner. Deady spun away from one defenseman, juked around Leclaire and while falling, poked the puck inside the left post to cut the deficit to 3-2 at 11:14.
It looked as if Riel's crew would beat Gemma once more with 3:08 left after junior forward Mike Enos had a clear shot at net, but his wrister from just inside the left circle hit the left post.
Prout coach John Gaffney called a timeout with 1:13 remaining; following a faceoff in Lincoln's zone 10 seconds later, he pulled Gemma in favor of a sixth man.
It almost paid off as Deady and his cohorts attacked the Lions’ tired defense, seemingly poised to force overtime; with 13.8 seconds left, he tried to push home a rebound, but Leclaire knocked it away. Leclaire was kept busy fending off Prout’s pressure for every single waning second, eventually landing on his midsection in the crease to prevent a final attempt as the horn sounded.
Lincoln actually had a man advantage with less than five minutes elapsed in the initial stanza; it earned that after senior William Thomas was called for tripping at 4:02. The two squads traded mini flurries over the next nine minutes, though referees whistled Krohto for interference with 2:02 left, giving Prout its initial power play.
Only 29.4 seconds into the game, senior Justin Mateus snapped in a rebound while stationed inside the right post, giving the Crusaders a 1-0 lead.
When Prout's scoring phenom Matt Peacock had been penalized for a hook at 9:12, Lincoln had its chance to knot it. In fact, a mere 33 seconds later, junior defenseman Robert Lake rifled a shot at Gemma from inside the left point, and senior co-captain Drew Wood redirected it, but the former made a critical deflection.
Just over four minutes later, Lake delivered a superb pass up the right boards to Krohto, who remained onside, then walloped a slapper from outside the right circle at net. He somehow found an opening, and tied it up at 1-1.
A mere 2:24 later, the Lions mustered their first lead of the game when Krohto – courtesy of a solid feed from senior Tyler Rego – slipped a backhand under Gemma's pads.
“They completely controlled the tempo in the first period and a half, but Ryan turned it around for us,” Riel noted later. “The whole team was struggling because we came out so flat. He had taken a bad penalty, but once he came out of that box, I thought he took total control. He was flying after that.
“Ryan missed practice (Wednesday), but he did an amazing job for us,” he continued. “He's one of the fastest kids in the state, if not the fastest, and that's when he put us on his back … They had four two-on-1 rushes in the first period; actually, I think it was in five minutes in the first, but Leclaire came up big.
“And Nick, he's been on an absolute tear for us; he's a workhorse, and has been playing his best hockey I've seen in four years in his past three or four games. He's outworked and outplayed the guys in front of the net.”
Riel had stated earlier this week he wasn't sure who would start for Lincoln in net come Game 1, as both Leclaire and classmate David Jessey had played superbly all year while sharing the role. He didn't hide his decision about the middle contest.
“Chris is going, no doubt about it,” he smiled. “He's in a zone right now, and I'm not going to interfere with it.”