PROVIDENCE – Lincoln High sophomore goalkeeper Chris Leclaire had been stationed in his own cage, well over 120 feet away, when his teammates on the Meehan Auditorium ice began a massive celebration.
Fractions of a second before, he had watched junior forward Griffin Hevey knock a routine skimmer from just inside the opponent's blue line at freshman netminder Austin Gemma.
The puck, however, apparently caromed off his right pad and/or skate and trickled over the goal line. With that funky tally, which occurred only 3:36 into overtime, the Lions manufactured another come-from-behind, 3-2 triumph over the Crusaders on Saturday afternoon. And, with the Game 2 victory and two-game sweep, head coach Jim Riel and Co. captured their second R.I. Division II Tournament championship since 2006 and fourth dating back to 1979.
“I could see what happened,” Leclaire beamed as his teammates celebrated inside their dressing room. “When I saw the other goalie's had go down, I could tell he had scored. I just threw my hands up in the air in sheer happiness. I guess that just came natural.”
The Lions closed their storybook season with a phenomenal 23-1-1 mark; remarkably, their lone defeat came to Division I foe Burrillville, 5-4, in overtime on New Year's Eve. The stalemate came on Feb. 1 against rival Cumberland.
“This is amazing; it's better than the last one,” Riel beamed afterward. “These kids have worked and worked. We still haven't lost a game in our division, but we had to fight through things just like any other team.
“I have tremendous respect for my captains (including seniors Jerzy Polak and Drew Wood) and all of my seniors,” he continued. “All season long, they found a way to win. We've had a lot of tight games over the past few weeks, but we won every one of them, and I attribute that to the leadership provided by my captains and seniors. It's a terrific group.”
As for Hevey's goal, Riel explained what happened.
“We talk about that and work on that all the time, playing four-on-four (in overtime),” he stated. “We talk about playing on the defensive side of the puck, and – when you're in the offensive zone – and throw the puck at the net, no matter what.
“Actually, Griffin had turned around to make a change; he was coming to the bench, but, before he did, he flipped in on the goalie,” he added. “We always tell them, in overtime, throw it down there. Nerves are running high, and anything can happen … We put about five hours over the past few weeks strictly on four-on-four.
“This is our second OT win in the playoffs, and we executed the four-on-four perfectly both times.”
Senior forward Ryan Krohto took home the Rev. Robert C. Newbold Memorial Most Valuable Player Award after notching five goals and two assists in these two tilts against Prout (19-9-0), but it easily could have gone to Leclaire, who amassed 33 saves in this title victory alone.
“Chris has been so hot; I'd say he's the hottest goalie in the state, no matter what division,” Riel noted. “He's done a fantastic job for us.”
The two squads remained scoreless in the first period, but the tempo picked up in the second. Still, like they had in the first contest, the Crusaders registered the first tally when junior Aaron Deady somehow poked a rebound past Leclaire, courtesy of passes from James Neri and Nyle Sockbeson, with 2:10 remaining.
Lincoln, though, didn't need much time to respond. Despite both teams having two players in the penalty box for roughing (that occurred with 38.4 seconds left in the middle stanza), senior Nick Moreau found Krohto open, and the latter lifted a wrister over Gemma's left shoulder 4:01 into the third to knot it.
Gemma finished with a whopping 49 stops.
With 9:43 left, officials whistled senior defenseman Gavin Megley for hooking, but Prout killed that infraction. Six seconds after Megley hustled back to the ice, senior Justin Mateus was called for a slash at the 7:37 mark. Only 31 ticks later, Polak tucked a power-play rebound under the keeper, after assists from Wood and classmate Tyler Duquette.
That gave the Lions a 2-1 cushion.
With a mere 2:36 left in regulation, Mateus took advantage of a turnover in the seam and drove a wrister off the right post and past Leclaire to knot it once more.
It looked as if Prout had garnered the clincher with 66 seconds left when Neri rifled a wide-open slapper at the cage, but Leclaire made a stellar blocker save.
All that was left was Hevey's “sudden victory” heroics.
“If you look at Friday night, the coaches told us we came out to slow, and we needed to play with more speed and confidence,” Leclaire grinned later. “In a lot of ways, this game was similar to that one. They took a 1-0 lead on us early, but we had to keep on battling. Coach just told us to keep control and play our style of hockey.
“In the end, we did,” he added. “This feels incredible. I'll never forget this, or what it means.”
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