WARWICK – In a perfect world, this would have been the match-up to determine the R.I. Division II Tournament champion.
Instead, the powers-that-be within the Rhode Island Interscholastic League bracketed regular-season unbeaten Cumberland High against archrival Lincoln, which had dropped a pair of one-goal decisions to the Clippers, in a D-II semifinal.
This one had all the drama and intrigue of a championship final, especially the rubber match between the two at Thayer Arena on Monday night.
The 700 or so fans inside Thayer Arena didn't come away truly disappointed. As has been the case for years now, the two battled tooth-and-nail for three periods and more.
In the end, however, top-seeded Cumberland utilized senior defenseman Jamie Casilli's powerhouse wrister to beat junior goalkeeper Chris Leclaire just 1:39 into the initial overtime session to deliver itself a thrilling 2-1 victory over the fourth-ranked Lions.
With the verdict, the Clippers not only avenged a semifinal defeat to Lincokln a year ago, but also earned a berth in the title set opposite either No. 3 North Kingstown or No. 6 St. Raphael/PCD/Wheeler Co-op beginning Friday.
Before the clinching tally, referees had whistled a Lion for tripping with 5.1 ticks left in regulation, giving CHS its third power-play chance. Lincoln survived the final seconds before heading to the first sudden-death round, one that would last 7:30.
With 6:49 remaining, Casilli ripped a slapper from the left point at Leclaire, who squelched that attempt, but only 56 seconds later, junior defenseman Kyle McKenna sent a feed to Casilli at the same spot, and he fired home the winner, though it seemed sophomore Jake Salisbury may have tipped it.
On the official score sheet, Casilli earned the goal, giving the Clippers their second shot at a state crown since earning one back in 2008. (That's when they had snared the D-II championship over PCD.
“I'm ecstatic; we're going to the championship round,” grinned CHS mentor Mark Andreozzi after his team had improved to 25-1-0. “In the locker room afterward, I just told the guys how proud I was of them, that they had played so well. I mean, they played super. They were so poised at the end, and everyone was flying.
“I thought one of the keys for us was they were running only two lines and we ran three; we wanted to get them tired,” he continued. “We had to shut down their floaters over the top of our defense, but we also didn't give them a lot of open lanes (in which) to skate.”
Stated Lincoln head coach Jim Riel of the his club's 20-5-0 campaign, and the game-winning tally: “I thought it got deflected on its way in. It wasn't a power-play goal, but it just well have been. The kid didn't even have his skates on the ice. It just hit some traffic and hit the back of the net.
“I suspected that was the way this was going to go because neither team was giving an inch,” he added with great humility. “Afterwards, I told them I was as proud as a coach could ever be. They did everything they asked from us (as a staff) – and more. At the end of the day, though, you just have to tip your hat to Cumberland.
“We played five games against them this year, and they beat us in four of them. They were all one-goal games. They're well-coached and a very deep hockey team.”
The Clippers had attained a 1-0 advantage with just 1:18 remaining in the opening period; that's when freshman forward Jimmy Cabral took a right-to-left pass from Salisbury and knocked a backhand past Leclaire.
Like the opening stanza, the two squads utilized defense to keep the foe at bay for most of the second, but LHS senior Mike Enos finally managed to tie it. With 2:04 left, he retrieved the puck deep in his own zone after a Leclaire kickout, raced down the right side and past a defender and lifted a wrister over Leo Lake's blocker.
Just like that, and just like the previous two in the series, the game was knotted at 1-1.
Both teams had a couple of fantastic opportunities to snatch the lead in the third, but all failed – that's a credit to Lake and Leclaire.
Then came Casilli's tally – and the entertaining, subsequent celebration.
Leclaire closed with a stellar 29 saves, while Lake earned 17.
“They were defending state champions, and – by record – they were the second-best team in the entire division,” Andreozzi explained. “It was a repeat of the semifinal last year, one we lost. I said (Sunday) that Lincoln always skates hard and plays well, and Chris Leclaire is a really good goalie. This was just another tremendous Cumberland-Lincoln hockey game.”
Like Riel, he added, “We played five games against them, and all were up-and-down, physical games. They also were all one-goal games. We're so evenly matched, but I will say this: This feels really good!”