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Within the first four minutes of the Friendship Four, the No. 20 Vermont Catamounts could have easily packed it in and accepted defeat.
Falling behind 2-0 early in Friday’s semifinal to Massachusetts, the Catamounts might have headed home with a fourth-place finish.
Instead, the Cats dug in their heels and played nearly flawless hockey for the final 116 minutes and, after a 5-1 victory over No. 3 Quinnipiac in the title game, will head back to the U.S. with the Belpot Trophy.
“We beat two really good teams,” said Vermont coach Kevin Sneddon. “UMass we had to come from behind. Quinnipiac has been one of the best college hockey teams over the last several years. To win this game was big for us.”
Freshman goaltender Stefanos Lekkas (40 saves) was the story of the tournament and earned Most Valuable Player honors. After surrendering goals on two of the first four shots he faced in Friday’s semifinal, the rookie netminder, similar to the team, shone the rest of the way, stopping all but one of the final 70 shots he faced.
“It all starts from the net out and Stef gives us a chance to win every game,” said Sneddon. “They tried to put a big push there in the second and the third. We took some ill-advised penalties and he was outstanding.”
The turning point in the game came midway through the third period. With Vermont already leading, 3-0, Chris Mascoby was called for holding, putting Quinnipiac on a power play.
The Bobcats hadn’t scored a single goal in the tournament to that point (Friday’s win came in a 0-0 tie where a shootout determined which team advanced). Coach Rand Pecknold decided to gamble, pulling his goaltender for a six-on-four advantage, and it paid off.
Craig Martin’s blast from the top of the right faceoff circle beat Lekkas and gave the Bobcats life.
That was until Ross Colton, who scored the first Vermont goal, accelerated down the right wing and buried a response past Andrew Shortridge (17 saves) just 51 seconds later.
Derek Lodermeier’s goal at 11:06 of the third was the cherry on the top for Vermont.
“We just stuck to the game plan,” said Vermont captain Brendan Bradley. “We got a few early ones and then kept our foot on the pedal.”
The Catamounts came out flying. Despite holding just a slight lead in shots on goal, 13-12, Vermont got on the board twice in the opening 12:49 and were in excellent position to extend the lead further.
Colton opened the scoring at 5:42, making a nifty move down the right wing and firing a shot under the crossbar as he cut in front of Shortridge. At 12:49, Mario Puskarich extended the lead, one-timing a perfect feed on a two-on-one with Craig Puffer.
Just 37 seconds after that goal, Quinnipiac captain Connor Clifton was whistled for a major penalty and game misconduct for contact to the head, giving the Catamounts a five-minute power play to possibly put this game away early.
Instead, Vermont took back-to-back penalties to negate the power play, forcing them to kill a four-on-three Quinnipiac man advantage. Successful, Vermont finished the frame with a 2-0 lead.
Similar to Friday when Quinnipiac had three power-play chances and seized momentum in the middle frame, an early parade of Catamounts to the box led to the ice tilting the Bobcats’ way.
The inability to solve Lekkas, though, maintained the two-goal lead, and unlike Friday, Vermont had a response after surviving the onslaught.
Late in the frame, 12 seconds after Nick Jermain was sent off for tripping, Jarrid Privitera redirected a Rob Hamilton shot-pass. The goal at 18:43 sent Vermont to the locker room with a 3-0 lead.
The crazy third never rattled Vermont, and when the final whistle sounded, the Catamounts were Belpot champs.
“Our guys will never forget this,” said Sneddon. “It’s nice to win hockey games, it’s nice to win the Belpot. But it’s all about the camaraderie in the locker room, the chance to experience a different culture, meet different people. That’s what they will remember.”
Consolation: St. Lawrence 2, Massachusetts 2 (OT); St. Lawrence wins shootout, 2-1 (six rounds)
St. Lawrence rallied from two goals down midway through the game to earn a 2-2 tie against Massachusetts in the third-place game of the Friendship Four.
Drew Smolcynski’s goal in the sixth round of the shootout gave St. Lawrence third-place in the tournament. The game is officially recorded as a tie for NCAA purposes.
Gavin Bayreuther factored in on both makers for the Saints, scoring the first goal and assisting on Carson Gicewicz’s tying goal with 8:13 left in regulation. Niko Hildenbrand and Austin Plevy scored for the Minutemen.
Each team was 1-for-6 on the power play, though failed opportunities for both clubs with the man advantage in overtime contributed to the 2-2 final.