Through six meetings this season, it had been impossible to separate the Hendricken and Mount St. Charles hockey teams.
Each team had won three times, and they’d scored an identical 21 goals apiece over those six games.
On Monday night, playing in front of a full Schneider Arena in the decisive third game of the best-of-three state championship series, the Hawks finally gained that separation.
And with that, they claimed the state title and took their place in history.
Behind 20 saves from MVP Billy Palmer and an opportunistic offense that got goals from four different players, Hendricken played its most complete game of the series to take down Mount 5-2, knocking the Mounties from their spot at the top after four consecutive state championships.
It was the third state title in school history for Hendricken, all of which have come in the last seven years. But, despite being in the finals three times since their last state title in 2006-07, the Hawks hadn’t been able to get past Mount and raise the trophy again – until now.
“It hasn’t even sunk in yet, but I’m sure it will in a little while,” Palmer said. “This is what I dreamed of as a little kid – beating the Mounties in the state championship. It’s great.”
The first two games of the series had gone down to the wire, with Hendricken rallying for a 4-3 overtime win in Friday’s game one before Mount forced a third game with a 3-2 win in Saturday’s game two.
But on Monday, the Hawks had no intention of letting the outcome hang in the balance until the final horn sounded.
They took the ice with an obvious confidence, as they out-skated Mount early on and put eight shots on Mount goaltender Brian Larence before the Mounties were able to get even one attempt on Palmer.
“It’s always an emphasis to get out early,” senior captain Justin Finan said. “Everyone did a great job of doing that tonight, and it paid off.”
And then, just when it seemed like Mount was starting to find its own rhythm, the Hawks struck first.
Junior David Mitchell took the puck into the offensive zone and skated down to the goal line, where he dropped the puck behind him to linemate Paul Filippone. Filippone did the rest, ripping a wrist shot high into the right side of the net, past Larence for a 1-0 lead.
“If we got shots on net, we thought we were going to win,” Filippone said. “We wanted to wear the defense down and live with the results.”
The Mounties haven’t won 30 of the past 35 state championships by folding, however, and they tied the game just 49 seconds later.
Steven Donahue II created a turnover in Hendricken’s zone, but had the puck poke-checked away as he took it towards goal.
His teammate Timothy Allen skated to the loose puck sitting in the low slot, and he beat Palmer on the right side to tie the score at one.
“I knew that they would definitely stay with it,” Palmer said. “I mean, it’s a Mount team in the state championship. They kept coming at us.”
But Hendricken wasn’t fazed.
With 1:16 to play in the first, Mitchell knocked down a pass attempt from Mount’s James Casilli at Mount’s blue line. Mitchell corralled the puck and skated towards Larence completely by himself. He buried a wrist shot, putting the Hawks back out in front 2-1.
“A costly turnover sent them on a breakaway,” Mount coach Dave Belisle said. “All of a sudden it was 2-1.”
Hendricken took a penalty with time winding down in the period, but killed it off early in the second period without a problem. Then, Hendricken struck again.
Mitchell and Filippone broke out on an odd-man rush, and Mitchell made a perfect pass from left to right to Filippone. Filippone wasted no time firing a wrist shot back to the left side of the goal, completely confusing Larence to put Hendricken up 3-1. Austin Navarro was also credited with an assist.
The third goal of the game with Hendricken’s line of Filippone, Mitchell and sophomore Andrew Fera on the ice put the Hawks firmly in the driver’s seat.
“They had a great game,” Hendricken head coach Jim Creamer said of that line. “They had a great series. They were dominant. They were strong, physical, they finished. Everything we could have asked for, we got from them.”
With the Mounties on their heels, Hendricken kept coming. Just 45 seconds after the team’s third goal, the Hawks’ Robbie Buehrer took a shot from behind Mount’s net that ricocheted off the back of the goal. Finan took the puck from there out in front, where he backhanded a shot over a sprawled out Larence for a 4-1 lead. Buehrer and Matt Creamer assisted.
“It’s a credit to our juniors and seniors,” Jim Creamer said. “The kids were very relaxed. I was always wondering if they were too relaxed before the game. They were quiet and calm, but it was a quiet confidence. Our start was outstanding, and that just continued all night long.”
But just when it seemed like Hendricken was going to cruise to the title, Mount turned up the heat. The Mounties narrowed the deficit to 4-2 on a slap shot goal by Nick Bennett from just inside the blue line with 9:07 left in the second period, and the Hawks’ Ryan Amalfitano took a holding penalty two minutes later.
Luckily, though, Hendricken had Palmer to preserve the lead.
Seconds after the power play started, Bennett got a clean look on goal but was turned away. A shot by Ryan Berard was saved not long after, and Brandon Borges also had his slap shot denied.
Brian Campbell tested Palmer as well, before Palmer robbed Brian Belisle on a rebound attempt. The power play finally ended, and Hendricken had somehow retained its two-goal lead.
“I think when the game was 4-2, when we started to dominate play before the period ended, we had a good four-minute stretch there,” Dave Belisle said. “Billy earned his MVP throughout the series, but right there when it was 4-2, he kept it at 4-2 and that was huge.”
Hendricken got a scare at the end of the period when Buehrer was checked hard into the boards and had to be helped off the ice. He did not return to the game.
Concerned with the health of their teammate, but undeterred, Hendricken came back out for the third period with one minute and 20 seconds remaining on a power play. At the 13:45 mark, Campbell was whistled for a slashing penalty for Mount, giving Hendricken two more minutes on the man-advantage.
That bled the clock out a little bit more, but with 7:28 to play, the Hawks opened the door just a little bit when Samuel Boulanger took an interference penalty. Sixty-eight seconds later, Navarro was called for holding, giving Mount 52 seconds of a 5-on-3 and another 1:08 of a standard power play.
Yet, Hendricken kept its poise. It dominated on the penalty-kill, as it didn’t allow a single Mount shot on goal during that span.
Amazingly, during the entire third period, Mount was only able to muster one shot on net.
“I was most impressed in the third period,” Creamer said. “We took some penalties, but just our attitude was go, go, go. They didn’t complain, moan and groan, they just went out and did what they had to do.”
Finan was whistled for a penalty with 3:29 to play in the game, but again Hendricken held strong. As time ran down, Mount pulled Larence from the net, and Matt Creamer took advantage by scoring an empty-netter with 49.8 seconds to play, with an assist from Ed Markowski, to seal the game.
The clock ticked to zero, and “We are the Champions” blared over the PA system, as Hendricken celebrated a hard-fought state championship.
The Hawks were the No. 1 team in the state all season long, not losing an in-state game until two months into the season on Jan. 27.
On Monday, they finished what they started back in November.
“I don’t know the right words,” Creamer said. “Satisfying, I guess. I’ve coached some good teams as far as quality of kids, but really I couldn’t have asked for a better group of kids. To see them have success, that’s what makes it so satisfying.”