By John Knebels
There was no better way to win, so it stands to reason that there was no worse way to lose.
Years from now, the enormous disparity of positive-versus-negative recall will probably still remain the way La Salle and Malvern Prep’s ice hockey teams felt after the Flyers’ Cup concluded March 7 at the Wells Fargo Center.
Down 2-0 entering the third period, La Salle scored two goals to put the game into sudden death overtime. Once there, the Explorers’ Nick Master dumped in a seemingly harmless shot from an impossible angle that somehow found the back of the net.
La Salle 3, Malvern Prep 2.
“I just wanted to make something happen,” an elated Master said. “When I saw it go in … it’s hard to describe. I never felt happier in my life.”
Master’s goal strangely resembled the tortuous tally that Patrick Kane scored against the Philadelphia Flyers last year in overtime of the sixth game to give the Chicago Blackhawks the Stanley Cup championship in front of 20,000 stunned fans.
As he approached the corner of the ice, Master simply dumped the puck in front of the Malvern net in hopes of obtaining a fortuitous bounce. But score a goal? That was hardly what Master had in mind.
Didn’t matter. As hockey experts preach time and again, put the puck on net and good things often happen.
“Our goal from the beginning was to win the Cup and get to the state finals,” said La Salle coach Wally Muehlbronner. “We’ve had a great season and it’s a credit to all of the guys. They’re feeling great right now.”
Malvern’s players felt the exact opposite. Before the traditional post-series handshake that all other team sports will hopefully organize one day, several Friars remained frozen on the ice and bench.
“We had it,” said Malvern’s Ryan Kavanaugh. “We had it. It was our game to win.”
As morbid as his words sounded, there was no debating Kavanaugh’s assessment.
Thanks to second-period goals 1:12 apart by Kavanaugh and Zach Olah, Malvern enjoyed a 2-0 lead entering the third period. As Malvern coach Steve Mackell attested to later, Malvern had played a nearly perfect first two stanzas.
But the worst possible thing happened to Malvern early in the third. La Salle scored quickly, a goal by C.J. Dunton off a rare defensive lapse by the Friars only 41 seconds into the frame. That goal, Muehlbronner said, lifted his team from the doldrums.
The usually explosive Explorers had their chances to tie, but several huge saves by Ryan Polischuk kept the Friars in front. There are some who might say that Polischuk actually didn’t allow a second tally in regulation, but a goal by La Salle’s Matt Williams off a disputed call – there was some serious question whether or not a dislodged net should have blown the play dead to no avail – tied the game at 2-2.
At the 1:12 mark of sudden-death overtime, a visibly confident La Salle used its experience to control play early, and that led to Master’s admittedly “un-masterful” game winner.
Masterful or not, the Cup hero was named the tournament’s most valuable player.
“I am never going to forget this,” Master said. “Our goal was not only to get here, but win it. The way we came back says a lot about the character on this team.”
“We played the team that was the best in the league and had a chance to beat them,” said a disappointed but obviously proud Mackell, who lauded his troops for remaining calm after the controversial call went against them. “I feel bad for our players, especially our seniors.”
That feeling will probably never fully dissipate.
Nor will the one being enjoyed by Nick Master.
La Salle’s final step awaits as the Explorers will play the to-be-determined winner of Pittsburgh’s Penguin’s Cup for the Pennsylvania Cup title March 26 at Ice Line Arena in West Chester.