Larry Moko, Special to the News
From beginning to end, it was a wild and wacky Hamilton-Wentworth Catholic Athletic Association boys’ semifinal hockey playoff.
Fans in attendance are probably still shaking their head in disbelief after the defending champion St. Mary Crusaders edged the St. Thomas More Knights 4-3 in overtime at Chedoke Twin Pad Arena on Thursday.
All seven goals, as it turned out, were scored at the same end of the rink — the one where a ceiling light above the net was shattered by a shot that caromed up off the crossbar during the pre-game warmup.
The teams returned to their respective dressing rooms prior to the opening faceoff while the Zamboni covered its usual route to clean up the broken pieces on the ice.
Both teams had excellent scoring opportunities, but the Crusaders thrilled their fans by rallying to score two unanswered goals in the third period. And with only six seconds remaining in the first overtime session, defenceman Brent Vandenheuvel ended it with a goal.
Naturally, it was a weird one — a slapshot which changed direction after glancing off a More player in front.
“In the heat of the moment I just shot it,” said Vandenheuvel who a second or two before had corralled a clearing attempt just inside the Knights blue line.
Crusaders coach Jason Kokoski admitted it was odd for all seven goals to be scored in the same end. “Maybe it was destiny,” he said.
St. Mary got a pair of goals in the third period by Jeremy Benoit. On his first — a long snap shot — the puck was only partially stopped by the catching glove of Knights goaltender Logan Morris. Said Morris: “The intermission after the second period killed us. I felt great when we went off. But in the third, I felt like I had no legs under me.”
The Crusaders, who finished third in the regular-season standings with a record of 7-3-2, opened the scoring in the first period. Forward Zach Maciel tapped in a rebound after Morris blocked a power-play point shot from Matt Sartori.
The second period belonged to More, however. The Knights got goals by Nicol (disputed by Crusaders netminder Jarod Philpott), Boateng and Bell.
“They had the advantage in play in the third period,” Knights coach Ken Chesla said. “They just took it right to us. They won all the battles. They caught us flat footed.”
St. Thomas More, which lost 5-2 to St. Mary in last year’s championship game, completed the 2012-13 schedule in second place with a mark of 6-2-4.
A tough, physical defenceman with a hard shot, Vandenheuvel said there was a lot of pressure on the Crusaders to repeat as champions this season.
“That was easily, by far, the best game I’ve ever played in,” Vandenheuvel said. “I’m speechless. Their team played great and our team played great.”
Kokoski says the win was one of the most exciting he’s ever been associated with at St. Mary.
“I’ve been coaching with Bob (Di Francesco) for eight or nine years,” Kokoski said.
“We do senior and junior together. So we’ve coached hundreds and hundreds of games together. That was definitely one of the best. It’s hard not to feel bad for St. Thomas More, though, because they played an awesome game. It could have gone either way.”
A former St. Mary player, Kokoski said his squad this year is veteran-laden and still appears to have the hunger to go for the title.
In the other semifinal, the first-place Bishop Ryan Celtics (10-1-1) topped the fifth-place Bishop Tonnos Titans (4-6-2) by a 4-2 count.
Bishop Ryan earned a first-round bye in the playoffs, while quarter-finals saw St. Mary eliminate Brebeuf, More oust Cathedral and Tonnos edge Cardinal Newman.
The HWCAA final will be held Monday at 12:30 p.m. at Dave Andreychuk Mountain Arena. Bishop Ryan nipped St. Mary 3-1 on Feb. 7 after the Crusaders downed the Celtics 6-2 on Dec. 17.