Assistant Sports Editor
MANCHESTER -- Megan Grabher just wanted to make a play.
In the third period of a scoreless Lake Division semifinal contest, the Burr and Burton Academy junior picked the puck up near mid-ice on a pass from Clara Berard and proceeded to hug the boards to her left as she brought it into the Northfield zone.
Down the boards she went, fighting off a Northfield defenseman to keep control until she was below Markie Delude’s goal. Curling with the boards, Grabher followed the bend until she got to the near post. With teammates bearing down on goal to help, Grabher slid the puck back towards the center of the ice to set up a shot.
Only it didn’t make it to a teammate, nor did the puck make it to a Marauder defenseman.
As the puck crossed into Delude’s crease, the outstretched leg of the goaltender caught the puck and sent it backwards -- into her own goal.
That deflection made the difference for the second-seeded Bulldogs as they knocked off the third-seeded Marauders 1-0 on Saturday at Riley Rink, sending the Bulldogs back to the Lake Division finals just two years after the team last hoisted a tournament championship.
"I was looking for Aggie [Bisselle] in front of the net and she was there," Grabher said. "I went to pass it and it went off some stick or skate and went in the net. I couldn’t believe it. I was so excited.
The deflection was the only difference between two evenly matched teams. The Bulldogs and the Marauders played three times this season. The line reads one win each, a tie and five goals scored.
"They were three awesome games," said Northfield coach Chris Amell. "We got them 2-1 down here earlier this year. It was unfortunate the way it happened, unfortunate goal. I think we ended up tapping it in ourselves. I talked with [BBA coach] Ed [Lewicki] at center ice and I wish we could do it again."
But a fourth match won’t come. Instead, the Bulldogs advance to the Lake Division finals for the second time in three years.
"I’m happy for the kids, they worked hard for this," Lewicki said. "Those kids have worked hard since they were little and they have that ‘refuse to lose’ mentality in the big games."
While Grabher will go down as the hero for netting the goal, the real battle in the contest came at the other end of the rink. With a Northfield attack that featured stud forward Kristen Dukette, the Bulldogs had to be resolute on defense before even thinking about going on the attack.
"There are so many plays, but one really sticks out in my mind," Lewicki said as he described the team’s defensive effort. "Clara Berard [was] one-on-one with Dukette. Dukette beat her girl that was marking her and Clara takes the body all the way to the corner and she doesn’t even get a shot. If Clara gets beat and [Dukette] gets a goal early in the first period, it is a different game."
In net, BBA junior Kaylie Benson had to stop 19 shots to secure the shutout. In the second period Benson had to stop 9 shots, including a handful of saves that came one after the other.
"When that happens its always nerve-wrecking because it’s hard to get the puck after it’s on the ice," Benson said. "They were awkward shots, too, coming from their end. I was just kind of hoping someone would pick it up or someone would shoot it right at me."
In the first period, the best chance would go to the Bulldogs via Kristi Lewicki.
With the Bulldogs on the attack, the junior created separation from the defense and got behind Delude. With Lewicki’s teammates furiously trying to get the puck on net and Delude unable to cover, the puck slid into the crease and Lewicki extended her stick. Unfortunately, Lewicki could not get enough of her stick on the puck to direct it into the net.
Libby Start got one of the best chances to score in the second when the Northfield forward found herself alone at point-blank range. Start’s shot, though, went into the chest of Benson for the goalie to cover.
"Kaylie, with 19 saves, was outstanding," coach Lewicki said. "I thought she really limited the rebounds. She covered quickly tonight."
All three penalties in the game were called in the second, with two going against Northfield and one for BBA. During BBA’s second power play, senior captain Mary Leech was given a golden chance off of a face-off, but Delude was able to track the puck and make the save.
"Honestly, we left it all out on the ice tonight," Amell said. "There was nothing else we could do. The defense played great, goalie played great, forwards played great we just didn’t get the bounce tonight."
Grabher’s goal came at the 11:36 mark of the third period on a play that Lewicki stressed to his team in the buildup to the contest.
"We got a lucky bounce, but we talked about it in our last practice. I told the girls ‘listen, we haven’t had a lot of luck getting pucks past [Delude]. Throw it to the net and good things will happen.’ [The goal is] what happens when you do the right things. She did the right thing, she used the width of our rink, went wide on her defender ... and just threw it in front."
After BBA went a goal up, the Marauders restarted the game more determined than before. Lindsey Bergeron, Claudia Gee and Shannon Hourigan all got shots on net, but Benson stopped every one. The attack did force Lewicki to take a timeout at the 5:44 mark, but he credits that decision with helping to keep Northfield off the board.
"You never want to call your timeout when you are ahead, but what we were seeing [forced it]," Lewicki said. "We saw that they were ramping it up and we were exhausted. If we didn’t rest our kids for that minute and a half, I mean they were really putting the pressure on. It gave us a chance to refocus."
And refocus the team did, as BBA allowed only two shots on Benson the rest of the way and, during the final two minutes of play, the Bulldogs played heads-up hockey and kept the puck deep in the Northfield zone, not allowing Amell to pull Delude for a sixth skater.
BBA will play Middlebury on Wednesday in the Lake Division final. The teams split the season series this year, with Middlebury winning the latest contest 5-2 on the final day of the regular season.