Mar 09, 2008 Phil Blackwell Uncategorized
One more time Sunday afternoon at Utica Memorial Auditorium, the members of the West Genesee ice hockey team stood in a line, faced their fans and raised their sticks in salute.
But they did so with heavy hearts.
Minutes earlier, the Wildcats’ dreams of its first state Division I championship since 2001 dissolved when Massena’s Mike Mailhot scored with just 29.3 seconds remaining in the third overtime, giving his Red Raiders a 3-2 victory to end the longest state final in the tournament’s 29-year history.
The moment Mailhot’s shot found the net, two vivid and contrasting scenes played out. As WG goaltender John Schlegel froze in shock and his teammates did the same, Massena’s players formed a joyous pile near center ice, gloves, sticks and helmets tossed aside as they mobbed Mailhot.
Everyone in the arena, though, knew just how close the Wildcats (23-3-3) had come to winning, something not lost on head coach Frank Colabufo.
“Massena just made one more play than we did,” said Colabufo. “It doesn’t change all that we accomplished. Our kids have been the best team, in the best league in the state, for five months, and they left it all on the ice. They were warriors.”
It took all that high quality for WG to even be in this position against a Massena team vastly improved from the 3-0 shutout the Wildcats gave them back on Dec. 9 in a tournament final up in the north country.
The biggest irony, of course, was that to even make the state final four, the Wildcats had to win a 3-2, triple-overtime game over Shenendehowa March 1 in the regional final at Shove Park on Erich Haney’s goal.
Unlike that game, WG would never have a lead in this final. But it showed the team’s true character and heart that, though down much of the game, it refused to quit.
It took less than five minutes of the first period for Massena to seize a 1-0 lead. Applying pressure from the opening face-off, the Red Raiders kept going until, at the 4:44 mark, Joseph Laffin seized on a loose puck at the point and fired it past Schlegel.
That 1-0 deficit would hold for a while. WG gained four different power plays in the first two periods and did not convert on any of them, sometimes not getting a shot against a quick, skillful Massena squad that knew how to handle the puck. If the Wildcats were to score, it would need to create opportunities, not wait for the Raiders to give it away.
Staying patient, WG waited for that moment until the third period, then got it when, with 11:47 left, Nate Halliwell and D.J. Mazzoni took shots that Massena goalie Kyle Anderson could not handle, allowing Conor Thompson to swoop in and put the rebound home to tie it, 1-1.
That tie would not last long. With 4:54 to play, after the Wildcats killed a pair of Massena power plays, Pichette forced a turnover behind WG’s net, went around and shot, then grabbed his own rebound and fired it past Schlegel, putting the Raiders back in front 2-1.
As the clock wound toward the final minute of regulation, Schlegel looked to the bench, waiting for his signal to abandon the net. Just as that was happening, though, Haney broke through the middle and nailed a wrist shot past Anderson with 1:07 left to tie it again, 2-2. Thompson and Ryan McConnell were credited with assists.
“There was no quit in this team,” said Colabufo. “They showed character, perseverance and mental toughness.”
All that strength would be needed as two tense overtime periods, totaling 15 minutes, went without a resolution. Both teams had power plays. Both could not convert on them, only adding to the drama.
Every Wildcat fan knew what it had done in the third OT against Shenendehowa, so they hoped for a repeat performance. Instead, as that period wound down, Massena applied some pressure and the puck slid to the point, where Mailhot, a defenseman, got open for a clean shot that found its way past Schlegel.
In all, Schlegel made 27 saves, and defenders like Ryan Michel and Tim Bubnack did a solid job of protection. Massena did just as well, defenders often putting their bodies in front of WG’s shots to keep Anderson from too much stress.
A day earlier, Schlegel had been in top form, a cornerstone of WG’s state semifinal victory as the Wildcats beat Section V champion Fairport by a score of 5-2.
Accustomed to quick starts in the post-season so far, the Wildcats pulled off another one against Fairport, with a pair of first-period goals.
Tim Besio converted first, on the power play, and D.J. Mazzoni followed by breaking in alone and scoring 90 seconds later at even strength to make it 2-0.
Fairport regrouped and cut it to 2-1 in the second period, then unleashed a barrage of attacks that would have staggered most teams. But Schlegel handled it all, earning a total of 17 saves in the period, more than half his eventual total of 29 saves.
“That’s the way he’s played for us all year,” said Colabufo. “He gives us a chance to win every game.”
Soon enough, WG was attacking again, and McConnell got in the center of it all. His terrific pass from the side set up Brady Fremont for a breakaway goal midway through the second period to build the lead to 3-1, and McConnell scored himself with a slap shot just four minutes later, and it was 4-1 going to the third period.
Besio would add a second goal in the third period. Both he and Schlegel would eventually earn second-team All-State selections, while senior captain Scott Lewis earned first-team status.
All of those individual honors were quite nice — but not as important, said Colabufo, as the way the team bonded with each other throughout this memorable winter.
“This team is very close and has tremendous character,” he said. “They love each other. There are no egos in that locker room.”
And that group would, on Sunday afternoon, come within inches of becoming the third West Genesee team in the last nine months (following girls lacrosse and football) to earn a state championship.
Instead, Massena would prevail. Still, everyone involved with West Genesee hockey could feel immense pride, having seen a team 2-20-2 just three seasons ago rise to be among the elite programs in the state again.