ASTON >> The 70-plus degree weather outside gave no indication of late winter, but there was a sign of the season inside Ice Works Wednesday night.
Springfield met Ridley in the Central League Playoffs for the third consecutive year, and for the third consecutive year, the Cougars and Green Raiders needed overtime. Ridley had prevailed in each of the two previous meetings. This time, Springfield exacted revenge.
With 4:57 left in the extra session, the Cougars lined up for an offensive zone draw. Joe Cavaliere won it back to Aidan Smith, who fired through traffic to beat Evan Miller to the stick side, off the post and in. A perfect shot, a perfect play that puts the perennial power into the Central championship game once again.
The Cougars will host a hot, upset-minded Strath Haven team in the Central final Thursday night at 7:30 at IceWorks.
“Joe tied the puck up and I put it in the net,” Smith said. “That’s all we were trying to do. That worked like it was the plan.”
If there were any doubt that this is the best rivalry in Delaware County hockey, it was put to bed long before Smith’s heroics. It was a physical game with controversy, solid goaltending and big hits. Through it all, the losses of yesteryear were on Springfield’s mind.
“We played hard; consistently hard,” Cougars coach Phil Eastman said. “We came out with a lot of motivation. Losing to them in the championship game (in 2016), it was a lot of motivation.”
Cavaliere was more blunt.
“Two years in a row, they took it away from us,” he said. “We just wanted it.”
Cavaliere was in the middle of everything Wednesday as he so often is. He mastered the second line center role the last few seasons and served as something of a pest. This year, he became a legitimate scoring threat, a skill he showed off on Springfield’s opening goal. Cavaliere beat the defenseman at the blue line and moved in on Miller.
Somewhere in the process, the puck slipped off his stick and through the netminder’s legs.
That 1-0 lead was short-lived, though. Michael Giampapa was quiet through the first 14 minutes of action but then made himself known in a matter of seconds. He won a faceoff forward, stepped around the opposing center and beat Calin Losacco high to the near post.
It was the latest, and perhaps last, brilliant play in what’s been a brilliant season from the junior. He leads the Green Raiders in goals with 28 and assists with 35. He also added physicality to his game, which he displayed by laying out Cavaliere cleanly across the middle early in the second period. That came soon after Cade Stratton had fired Ridley in front.
The Green Raiders were in control, but they weren’t pulling away. Losacco played a steadfast goal, using his 6-3 frame to keep Ridley at bay. Then as time expired in the second, Jake Cross took a penalty. Kevin Brown equalized on the ensuing power play. The score gave the Cougars belief.
“I think when we tied it up, and I knew right then we could do it,” said Smith. “We rolled from there.”
Overtime was a foregone conclusion at that point, despite the 14-plus minutes left in regulation. Losacco was too solid; he would finish with 26 saves.
“They played a good game defensively,” Raiders coach Stephane Charbonneau said of Springfield. “They didn’t cheat. They got the puck out of the zone, nothing fancy.”
But there was one more defining moment to come. On a 2-on-1, Cross found Giampapa just in front of the crease. Losacco stuck his leg out to kick out the chance. In pursuit, Cavaliere nudged Giampapa away from the goal and the Ridley star fell into the boards awkwardly. He threw off his gloves in pain and left the ice. He wouldn’t return.
“I just rode him off into the boards,” Cavaliere said. “I didn’t mean to hurt him. It happens. It was an accident.”
An accident that left the Raiders (13-6-1) without their best player. That point proved critical not only in the offensive zone but at the faceoff dot as well.
“You lose your best center,” Charbonneau said. “He would’ve been taking the faceoff in the last minute there. Nothing against the other guys, though. You deal with adversity. This is part of life.”
Cavaliere struggled to put the emotion into words of watching Smith’s game-winner unfold.
“The three seconds went by and it was in the net,” he said. “The best way I can explain it is just a blank. We just won. We just beat Ridley.”
This has been a trying year for the Cougars (9-6-5). They finished a distant second behind the Green Raiders in the Central League South with five ties. But so long as the yellow sweater with the navy S remains, the tradition doesn’t change.
“(Nothing) seems to phase us,” Cavaliere said. “We have Calin, we have a great goaltender. We have me. We have Kevin (Brown). We have Aidan. We have scorers. We’ve just been a slump, but this is when it matters.”