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Downingtown East outlasts Pennridge, sets up Flyers Cup final date with archrival West

WEST GOSHEN >> The roar from the Downingtown East locker room Thursday night was loud enough to hear at least 100 feet down the Ice Line hallway. 

It might have been loud enough to echo a few miles down the road, to the western end of a town split down the middle by an arbitrary dividing line.

“It’s just going to be the greatest thing,” said Downingtown East coach Dave Hendricks. “You have two teams with so much respect for each other, with one of the greatest rivalries in high school sports.”

Top-seeded Downingtown East held on for dear life Thursday night, edging No. 4 Pennridge, 3-2, in the Flyers Cup Class AA semifinal, and setting up a date with archrival Downingtown West in Sunday’s Flyers Cup final, 4:30 p.m. under the bright lights of Wells Fargo Center.

“East against West, at Wells Fargo for the title,” said Downingtown East captain Michael Bolger, who scored the deciding goal Thursday night. “It really can’t get any better than that.”

The Flyers Cup has been dominated for years by teams from the southern part of the region, including the Ches-Mont. Suburban One schools like Pennridge have long been relegated to moral victories when they came down to Ice Line to meet the Downingtowns or West Chester schools.

But Thursday night, against the two-time reigning Flyers Cup and state champion Cougars, Pennridge was definitely not scared.

Never was that clearer than in the final two minutes, when the Rams absolutely dominated play in search of an equalizer. Pennridge swarmed the Downingtown East end, and when goalie Luke Stranick went to the bench with 63 seconds left, the six-on-five seemed like a 10-on-five.

There were at least four point-blank chances for Pennridge to tie the game in the closing seconds, including a shot from the point that rang off the corner of the post so hard that it nearly flew into the stands. The loud “clang” brought a hush over the big crowd at Ice Line.

“I mean you’re talking a post,” said Pennridge coach Jeff Montagna. “There were four unbelievable chances in that last minute. It’s tough to watch 11 seniors be the way they are and be upset. But I’m just so proud of them, I really am.”

The hero of the final minute — and the entire game — for Downingtown East was goaltender Matt Shandler, who finished with 24 saves. 

“It was tough, they were pressuring us a lot,” Shandler said. “But it was nothing like last year’s state championship game, when we went to five overtimes. So after that, nothing really fazes me that much.”

Multiple times during the game, it appeared that top-seeded East was going to take full control of the game, and the scoreboard. Such as when Bolger pulled off an incredible, coast-to-coast solo effort that ended with a low shot past Stranick to give East a 3-1 lead with 6:15 left in the third period.

“Bolger is a big-time player, that’s what he is,” said Hendricks. “A couple Flyers Cups ago, as a sophomore, he just walked into the finals and dominated. He’s one of the hardest working, most dedicated kids in hockey that I’ve ever met. Was just an absolute joy to coach. He’s basically your fifth coach on the bench.”

Bolger’s goal could have easily deflated Pennridge, but just 90 seconds later, Eric Slater found the back of the net and made it a one-goal game again. 

“I told them before the game, I wanted them to play with no fear,” Montagna said. “They’ve never seen Downingtown East. They don’t know what they’re about. I wanted them to come down here and compete. And I told them the first 10 minutes were going to tell us a lot. And I think they saw they could play with them. That team is depeer than us and they took the play to us in the second period. To come back the way they did, after what could’ve been an absolute back-breaker (Bolger’s goal), was incredible. In the end, they were just a hair deeper.”

The Rams battled through those first 10 minutes, then actually took control of play on a power play halfway through the first period, executing a patient, steady attack that was only thwarted by some big saves from Shandler.

It was Downingtown East that got the first goal, when Ryan Johnston scored on the power play on an assist from Theo Vela.

In the final minute of the first period, Pennridge jumped right back into the game when a relatively slow centering pass from Blake Stewart somehow wriggled through two defensemen and past Shandler to even the score.

The Cougars took the play to Pennridge for most of the second period, but only scored one goal, when Nick Rosati scored on assists from Andrew Ceglia and Ryan Prestayko.

In the postgame locker room, the Cougars were already getting fired up for the showdown with West, as the Flyers Cup finals return to Wells Fargo Center for the first time in any of these players’ careers.

“For the last five years, I’ve told the Flyers Cup committee that they are absolutely wrong with their seeding,” Hendricks said. “They’ve absolutely butchered Downingtown West for the last four years. 

“And this year, they absolutely embarrassed them,” Hendricks said. “They had no right being a 15 seed, and they’ve beaten the best to get here. So now it’s going to come down to proving who is the best.”

Downingtown East 3, Pennridge 2

Pennridge 1 0 1 — 2

Downingtown East 1 1 1 — 3

Pennridge goals: Stewart, Slater.

Downingtown East goals: Johnston, Rosati, Bolger.

Goalie saves: Stranick (P) 31; Shandler (DE) 24.

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