LEWISTON — St. Joe’s learned two years ago that beating a bitter rival three times in one season is one of the hardest things to do in hockey.
That was when the Marauders’ championship quest ended prematurely with an overtime loss in the playoff semifinals at the hands of a Canisius team it had handled twice during the regular season.
The Crusaders now know their nemesis’ pain, but that doesn’t matter to the Marauders. The only thing that does matter to them is that they will get a chance to defend their Niagara Cup championship Monday at First Niagara Center.
Third-seeded St. Joe’s earned that right by beating No. 2 Canisius, 5-2, in a Niagara Cup semifinal game played before an estimated 1,300 at Dwyer Arena. Junior Dominic Perna scored two first-period goals and then completed his hat trick with an empty-net goal with 48.9 seconds left to lead the Marauders into the final against No. 1-seed Bishop Timon-St. Jude.
“I’ve always dreamed of scoring a hat trick and to do it in the semifinals against our biggest rival is awesome,” said Perna, who also had an assist. “It’s unbelievable, two years in a row to have a chance to play for the championship. You couldn’t ask for anything better than this.”
No, you can’t, especially if you’re Timon.
Last year’s playoff runner-up opened the semifinal doubleheader at the home of the Niagara Purple Eagles with an 8-1 victory over No. 5-seed St. Mary’s of Lancaster. Connor Fields had two goals to highlight a four-point night. Joe Piegay had two goals and an assist, and Kyle Kostek also scored twice in helping the Tigers not only win their 12th in a row but return to the final where they hope to redeem themselves after last year’s near miss.
“It feels good to get back to the final, but don’t stop working until we’re done,” said Tigers coach Gene Overdorf.
The student sections for both St. Joe’s (15-11-1) and Canisius (16-5-2) were quite vocal but the Marauders Rowdies had reasons to make the most noise - serenading the blue and gold with a “season’s over” chant once Perna capped his big night with the empty-net tally after the Crusaders had been pressuring their foe in hopes of tying the game at 3-3.
John Schmitt added another empty-net goal with 2 seconds left for the final margin. Junior Matthew Ruggiero scored late in the second period to make it 3-1 St. Joe’s. Senior goalie Peter Chopra made 35 saves for the Maruaders, who have won nine of their last 10 games.
Louis Oliveri scored twice for Canisius, which held a 37-15 edge in shots and had won both regular-season meetings.
St. Joe’s seniors discussed the importance of Tuesday’s game and not ending their careers having been swept by Canisius. Coach Rich Crozier, a St. Joe’s alumnus, then challenged his underclassmen to help the seniors earn one more game.
They made their presence felt at 5:08 of the first period when sophomore defenseman Jeff Rymarczyk acted like he was going to ice the puck during a penalty kill. But he noticed Perna streaking down the right wing behind the Canisius defense and instead saucered a beautiful pass to Perna, who beat Jake Nichols on the breakaway high glove side.
“It was great awareness,” Crozier said. “I thought he was going to ice it too.”
Perna scored with 5:04 left in the period when he used his speed to beat a defenseman on the rush and fired from the near the right hash marks.
“I think he’s the best player in the league and that’s no disrespect to Connor Fields,” said Crozier of Perna. “But as far as I’m concerned, he’s what a St. Joe’s hockey player should be.”
Justin Blake and Jacob Giacobello also scored for Timon, which had a distinct territorial advantage for most of its semifinal. The Tigers outshot St. Mary’s, 50-10, and had countless other quality shots either blocked or sail wide.
All that possession time seemed to be going for naught, though, as the game remained tied 1-1 heading into the latter half of the second period. That’s when Fields took over.
Fields broke the 1-1 knot with his 46th goal of the season, going end to end and capping the breakaway chance with a nifty backhand with 6:52 left. He wasn’t done.
Fields’ blast from the point through traffic made it 3-1 with 5:15 left. Fifty-five seconds later, he set up Piegay in the left circle to make it 4-1.
Potential disaster averted by the Tigers (19-5-1).
“It was nice,” Fields said of the importance of his first goal. “It helped a lot. We regained our confidence.”
Fields, Piegay and Blake combined for five goals and four assists.
Mike Wierzbicki scored for St. Mary’s (4-10-2-1).