The Bishop Hendricken hockey team knew it had a few flaws as it readied itself for its state semifinal series against La Salle, namely that it relied heavily on dominant goaltending and that one line did nearly all of its scoring.
And if the Hawks knew about those issues, the Rams did too. La Salle made sure to exploit them.
In two games over the weekend, La Salle put relentless pressure on Hendricken goaltender Mitch Proulx, and essentially shut down the Hawks’ vaunted top line. On Friday night, the Rams won 2-0, and they swept the best-of-three series with a dominant 6-2 victory on Saturday night.
The fourth-seeded Rams advanced to the state championship series, where they’ll take on No. 2 seed Mount St. Charles this weekend for the crown. The Mounties swept No. 3 Coventry over the weekend.
The top-seeded Hawks, coming off a 15-2-1 regular season, won’t have a chance to defend their state championship.
“We were chasing our tail, all weekend,” Hendricken head coach Jim Creamer said. “I wish I knew why. It’s mind-boggling a little bit. Again, it goes back to them working hard and I just don’t think we answered the bell at certain points. Consequently we’re out. And they’re in.”
Hendricken will miss out on the finals for the first time since the 2009-10 season and only the second time since 2003-04. La Salle, on the other hand, returns to the finals for the first time since 2009-10, and will be seeking its first title since 1977.
The Rams were simply better on both nights.
“We’ve been proud of our team all year, I guess none more so than now,” La Salle head coach Mike Gaffney said. “They played six real good periods against the top team in the division. Last night we did it by some real good defense, tonight we did it by some real good defense but some offense too.”
By losing as the No. 1 seed, Hendricken became just the second No. 1 seed to not reach the finals since the 1993-94 season, and the only top-seeded team to get swept in the past 20 years. It just wasn’t their weekend, and that was clear from the opening whistle.
La Salle’s Jason Delisle scored just 19 seconds into game one, giving La Salle a lead it would never give up. The Rams held strong from there on out, as goaltender Tyler Walsh made 27 saves to keep Hendricken off the board.
Late in the third period, Joe Manown added an empty net goal to finish the scoring. Proulx, Hendricken’s goalie, made 20 saves on 21 shots, but offensively the Hawks couldn’t pick up the slack.
“They were the better team for two nights in a row,” Creamer said. “I wish I had a reason for why, but I don’t. We’ve got to give them all the credit. They really worked hard. We just had some breakdowns along the way that sort of killed us.”
It only got worse on Saturday.
Starting in the middle of the first period, La Salle seized control. It won nearly every tie-up along the boards, and it put quality shots on Proulx. With 6:52 left, the Rams went on a power play after a Hendricken interference call.
Though they didn’t technically score on the power play, they used it to their advantage. After having the puck in the Hawks’ zone for most of the man advantage, La Salle’s Matt Manown put the puck on net just as the power play expired. With Hendricken trying to get back to even strength, Derek Blanchette punched home the rebound for a 1-0 lead.
“We had a couple of guys up there and they did a good job of getting there in a tie or first, on occasion,” Gaffney said. “There were a lot of ties to the puck, and we kind of like our chances pretty good in a tie.”
Hendricken was by no means dead, as it tied the score with 1:17 left in the period after Matt Creamer won a faceoff to Matt Kim, who put a shot on net that ricocheted out to Ed Markowski, who buried the rebound.
But that was the high point.
At the 8:41 mark in the second, La Salle struck again, as Joe Manown circled around the back of the net and stuffed the puck just inside the post, past a lunging Proulx for the 2-1 lead. Two minutes later, on a power play, Manown put a shot on net from the left point and Matt Botieri scooped up the rebound and wristed a shot past Proulx to make it 3-1. That’s how the period ended.
“I can’t say it’s a big surprise,” Jim Creamer said. “We knew we had issues. Those issues just really popped up at the wrong time.”
Still, there was a little bit of hope for the Hawks as they began the third period. A penalty had carried over from the previous period, giving Hendricken 1:03 of a power play to open the period.
Then, it all fell apart. The Hawks struggled to hold on to the puck, and at the 14:16 mark Tim Giblin stole the puck near center ice and skated in on a breakaway. He beat Proulx on a backhand for a short-handed goal that made it 4-1. That was pretty much the knockout blow.
“The worst case scenario,” Creamer said. “Even in that situation, I have no idea how that happened. We had a defenseman fall. Just the worst-case scenario. We had a power play, could have made it 3-2, instead it’s 4-1.”
Hendricken did score three minutes later to make it 4-2, as Andrew Fera took a slap shot on a power play from the right side that ricocheted off a La Salle defender past Walsh, but the Rams just kept coming.
With 5:40 to play, Delisle fore-checked hard and stole the puck from a Hendricken defender before finding a streaking Patrick Bowe in the slot. Bowe controlled the puck and back-handed a shot in to make it 5-2.
“Some of the things that were sort of hidden from us all year because we were winning really sort of popped up and killed us this weekend,” Creamer said.
The Hawks went on a power play with 2:12 left and pulled Proulx, but even that back-fired. La Salle won the ensuing faceoff and Delisle scored from center ice to put the finishing touches on the sweep.
The playoff wins were the first wins for La Salle over Hendricken this year. The Hawks took all three regular season meetings.
“I have some very good leadership from my senior class,” Gaffney said. “I don’t think that was ever a question in their mind, and that’s the important thing. I don’t think that was ever a question. We had three very good games against a very good team, and we were ready to go.”
One major difference was Hendricken’s top line of Markowski, Matt Creamer and Fera, which did produce the Hawks’ two goals during the series, but was largely neutralized. During the season, those three were all in the top four in the division in scoring.
“It’s no secret, we only had three guys who really scored for us all year,” Jim Creamer said. “When they get neutralized, you’re asking other guys to try. Again, that goes to La Salle’s credit. They matched lines with us, and those three kids did a great job of shutting us down. They have an excellent goaltender, and that makes it an uphill battle.”
The good news for the Hawks is that they’ll have most of their team in tact for next season. They do lose some important pieces – Markowski, Proulx, goaltender Craig Colson and forward Dakota Hersey – but they’ll return the bulk of their nucleus.
La Salle and Mount will open the championship series on Friday at 7:30 p.m. at Brown. Saturday’s game two is at 8 p.m., with a third game on Monday scheduled for 7:30 p.m., if necessary.