The No. 1 seeded defending champion Pilgrim Patriots are headed back to the Division III Hockey Finals for the third year in a row after smothering the No. 4 seeded Mt. Hope Huskies 8-3 in Game 3 of the semifinal round on Tuesday night at Thayer Arena.
Pilgrim head coach Mike Boyajian Jr., and his father, assistant coach Mike Boyajian Sr., join Mount St. Charles coaches’ Bill and David Belisle as the only father-son coaching staffs in Rhode Island hockey history to make three straight State Finals appearances.
“It feels fantastic,” Boyajian Jr. said. “The kids put the work in all year long. It’s nice to see them get rewarded, and a trip to the championship every year feels amazing. So, first time or third time, it doesn’t make a difference. It always feels awesome.”
Pats’ senior forward Matt Pacheco rose to the occasion and netted five goals plus an assist.
“I told him on the bench, you’ve had the best game of your life tonight,” Boyajian said. “He was everywhere. Everything he seemed to put near the net went in the net.”
Jack Clements, also a senior, tallied two goals and three assists in the contest.
That wasn’t all though, Pilgrim got a great group effort from almost everyone on its team.
“All of our defensemen for the most part tonight they were fantastic,” Boyajian said. “All of our defensemen did their job tonight. They played hard-nosed.”
Also, coming up huge for the Pats were A.J. Sherlock, a junior, who scored a goal and tallied three assists and James Cook, a sophomore, who contributed four assists.
“Both of them down the stretch were playing really well,” Boyajian said. “Cook and A.J. deserve the points they got tonight because they worked for them.”
Mt. Hope took an early 1-0 lead at 8:28 of the opening period when Cam Rancourt, a senior, found the back of the net after a pass from Jared Rego, a sophomore.
Two and a half minutes later, Pilgrim evened the score at 1 when Pacheco attacked from behind the net and slipped the puck past, Brett Therien, the Mt. Hope freshman goaltender, following assists from Sherlock and Chris Quirk.
Then, with 3:36 remaining in the first period, Pilgrim took a 2-1 advantage when Clements scored an unassisted power-play goal.
A minute later, the Huskies knotted the game at 2 when Rancourt rifled a blast past Dylan Cunetta, the Pilgrim freshman goaltender, during a power play. The assists on that goal came from Rego and Tim Byrne.
Two minutes and 19 seconds into the second period, Pilgrim captured a 3-2 lead after Pacheco punched in a rebound after Clements fired a slap shot. Cook was also credited with an assist.
At 4:57 of the period, Rancourt deadlocked the game at 3 during a power play after a pass from Byrne.
Then, Pilgrim went up 4-3 when Clements and Sherlock assisted in front to Pacheco for his third tally, a power play goal.
Thirty seconds later, Pilgrim got some insurance at 5-3 when Sherlock scored a power play goal after passes from Pacheco and Cook.
Then in the third period, the Pats added three more goals to their buffer.
Pacheco put a backhand onto the top shelf at 5:38 of the period following a dish from Sherlock, which put the Pats up 6-3.
Five and a half minutes after that, Pilgrim went up four when Pacheco fired the puck past Therien, following assists from Cook and Clements.
Lastly, Clements scored an empty-net goal after a pass from Cook with 2:43 to play and put the Pats up 8-3.
Cunetta totaled 21 stops for Pilgrim while Mt. Hope’s Therien made 32.
After the game, Pilgrim celebrated its third straight title appearance, but the Pats know their work is far from done.
“I feel so confident,” Pacheco said. “I couldn’t be more excited.”
Clements was pumped up as well.
“I’m pretty happy with it and very satisfied, but we’re not satisfied enough because we didn’t win it all yet,” Clements said.
If it wasn’t for the rising success of the Pats’ two freshmen goaltenders, Cunetta and Connor Williams, Pilgrim might not be headed back to the Finals.
“Both of them have played great for us in stretches,” Boyajian said. “So, they’ve had each other’s backs all year long. Whoever’s playing, the other one’s always rooting him on. And they’ve pushed each other. And through that, I think both of them have developed from two kids who barely knew how to put the pads on back in November, into what we’re seeing now, which is each of them got a win for us in this series.”
Next, Pilgrim looks for its second straight D-III title this weekend when it heads to URI’s Bradford R. Boss Ice Arena to face off against West Warwick/EWG co-op in the D-III Final. Game 1 is on Friday and the puck drops at 8:30 p.m.
“It’s that bitter rivalry that just keeps giving,” Boyajian said. “It seems like we are in some sort of a playoff battle with them every single year back to my days at the Vets. I love it. It gets me going to see those guys again. It’s like that natural rivalry. So we’re looking forward to facing them in the Finals.”
West Warwick/EWG co-op also carries a pair of freshmen goaltenders in Kevin Macdonald and Henri Messier.