Wild semifinal series tilts Holy Cross’ way

With about one minute left in the final game of the CHSHL ‘B’ semifinals, a roar emanated from the sizeable crowd in Coney Island. Making themselves heard were over 100 parents and siblings and friends tied to Holy Cross High School, all of them just beginning to realize that their hockey team was about to win one of the greatest battles of its existence.

Which battle that was remains to be determined. It could have been the series against St. Francis Prep, the team that waged a tight, physical best of three against the Knights just weeks after snapping their two-year undefeated streak. The Terriers won 6-5 in Game One, the Knights 3-2 in Game Two thanks to a third-period comeback. Saturday, March 7’s decider saw Holy Cross hang on to a 4-2 lead after a hectic final period best described by Knights captain Tom Monte as “a little chippy.”

It could have been the near-absence of first-line forward Anthony Yacovone, who was on his way back from a travel hockey showcase in Massachusetts as Saturday’s game time neared. He arrived just 15 minutes before the start of the game, and he followed by scoring the contest’s decisive goal and tallying two assists. He had jokingly text-messaged a teammate that he was stuck in traffic when he was actually in the parking lot.

“That’s why he has a letter [A] on his jersey,” said Holy Cross head coach Kevin Goodspeed. “He was really torn about it, but he made a last-minute decision to be with his team. That’s just the kind of guy he is. I can’t say enough about him. I think the whole team just rose up when they saw him walk in.”

“When he walked in, everybody started cheering,” teammate John Pagano said.

Finally, it could have been Holy Cross hockey’s loss of founder and former head coach Mike Mitchell, who died on February 28 at age 58. Mitchell, the league’s commissioner, had been suffering from liver and kidney damage following a car accident in Queens, and his health problems had hung over the program’s head for two months. Goodspeed told his players the news about Mitchell before they stepped onto the ice for their Game One defeat.

“It’s heart-wrenching,” Goodspeed said, “because he would have loved to see these two teams going at it. I’d like to think he’s looking down on us a little bit.”

Whichever battle was Holy Cross’ greatest, the Knights overcame it with considerable poise. Within the first two and a half minutes of Saturday’s game, they scored twice. First was Pagano at 0:35; he took a pass from Yacovone and connected on a left-handed shot from the right side. Second was Monte at 2:11; he backhanded a rebound from close range.

Another spurt – within a span of eight seconds in the third period – cemented Holy Cross’ bid for a spot in the championship. With the score at 2-1, Yacovone broke free from his defensemen and used a brilliant deke to find space in the right side of the net. With the cheers still echoing at Abe Stark Rink, Pagano, off an assist from Yacovone, followed with his second goal of the game. This one prompted hugs and stick-banging chaos on the Knights’ bench, as well as a “Yeah baby!” from an unbridled Goodspeed.

Did we mention they were both shorthanded goals?

“Two goals are bad, but two shorthanded is a killer,” Pagano said.

Goodspeed had complained after the first loss about his players’ tendency to take bad penalties, and on this night, the Terriers racked up seven power plays to the Knights’ one. But in a physical game that featured a few shoving matches and some extended conversation between opposing players, the Knights survived their penalties.

St. Francis Prep’s Patrick Schule shoveled in his own rebound with 2:49 remaining, but by then the result was immutable. When the game ended, the Knights jumped atop each other at center ice. As should happen in any proper on-ice celebration, a few players slipped to the ground in their excitement.

“We’d rather win a championship,” Pagano said. “But this was kind of a small championship.”

“I’m ready to go out and celebrate,” Monte said.

Add one more to the list of Holy Cross’ battles on March 7: By advancing to the ‘B’ division finals, the Knights have proven something to the team members who experienced a ‘C’-division demotion at the start of last season. They have proven that their overwhelming success in 2007-08 was due to something more than light competition.

“I thought we belonged in the ‘B’ division, and we really wanted to come with a vengeance [this year],” Goodspeed said.

Now they can look forward to a three-game series with Xavier that will be decided either Friday (March 13) or Saturday (March 14) night.

“We’ll relax tomorrow and we’re back to work on Monday,” Yacovone said. “If we just play our game, we’ll be fine.”

For full-game video of the March 7 contest, visit www.PLAYPUSHER.com.

More from Around New York