ASTON — Before the puck dropped Friday evening, Springfield faced the very real, and equally surprising, possibility of missing the Central League playoffs, a competition the Cougars have dominated for the better part of a decade. Springfield trailed Garnet Valley by a point in the standings, needing a win over the Jaguars to move into postseason position.
The two teams squared off at Ice Works, and a combustive, antagonistic and ultimately controversial game ensued. The Cougars and Jaguars, playing for the second time in four days, combined for 22 penalties, six unsportsmanlike conducts and two 10-minute misconducts. The tying goal appeared to cross the line after the whistle.
Through it all, though, Springfield’s seniors kept their heads. And the captain, Aidan Smith, delivered a highlight-reel goal to clinch a 6-5 victory.
“This is my fourth year playing varsity. It doesn’t affect me,” Smith said of the hostility. “I play better in those situations.”
He proved it with a dazzling move to the net with less than five minutes to play. Smith broke down the wing on his forehand and found himself facing a one-on-one.
“I beat the one defender, and the other kid laid down in front of me,” Smith said. “I pulled it behind him and shot it.”
He beat Joshua Juliano, who made 21 saves in defeat, high to the blocker side to give the Cougars their first lead of the contest.
“He led the pack,” Thomas Yocum said of Smith. “As a senior, you know your time is running out. It’s time for the big dogs to step up.”
The loss leaves the Jaguars, their league schedule completed, on the outside looking in. They had two cracks at Springfield this week and fell twice.
“It was rough, especially to lose it in that kind of way,” said Matt Wood, who had three assists for Garnet. “We had them so many times and just let it slip.”
They also were at the wrong end of a questionable call. At the 6:24 mark of the third, Nick Medwid’s wrist shot crept behind Juliano and across the goal line. But just as it did, or maybe before, one of the officials blew his whistle. The Cougars celebrated while awaiting the referees’ ruling, and the goal stood.
“He actually said he blew the whistle after the puck was in the net,” GV coach Keith Crowley said of the explanation. “It happens. From my point of view, he blew the whistle, then the puck went in. But once the refs make the call, that’s the way it is.”
Garnet had every right to be frustrated. The Jags had led from the jump. Brendan Binz scored off a slick cross-ice pass from Wood late in the first period. Then Garnet struck three times in the second. Simon Abukasis, Nicholas Port and Binz picked up goals. The Jags outshot Springfield, 29-16, across the first 32 minutes. But they couldn’t pull away.
As the atmosphere crossed over into playoff territory, the Cougars, familiar in that environment, stepped up. In between the marches to the penalty box, Springfield turned on its offense. Zach Crain scored 7:35 into the second to make it 2-1. Down two, a little more than two minutes later, Dominick Romolini deflected in his brother Geno’s point shot.
When the game was most chaotic — with a combined eight players serving penalties — Smith produced a slick shorthanded goal, picking off a pass and slipping his backhander five-hole.
“He came up big tonight,” Cougars coach Phil Eastman said of Smith. “He’s a terrific player. Overall as a team, all year we’ve been resilient. We had to be.”
That resiliency paid off in the third. Springfield trailed 5-3 just 2:02 into the final frame when Patrick Vaughn padded Garnet’s advantage. But Brendan McCloskey answered with a coast-to-coast effort. Medwid’s controversial marker followed. Smith applied the finish.
“We still have Flyers Cup,” Wood said. “We’re going to come out better.”
The Jags (8-10-0-0, 6-10-0-0 Central) won four of their last six games. Both defeats came against the Cougars (7-8-0-1, 6-7-0-1), who climbed up to fifth place with the win.
“Personally, I thought about it a lot, because I’ve been first or second place, right to the championship,” Smith said about missing the Central League playoffs. “We pulled it out.”
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