Island Hockey Wins, Advancing to State Championship Play

By JOSHUA SABATINI

The Martha's Vineyard Regional High School varsity boys' hockey team defeated the defending state champions Sunday, earning a trip this weekend to Boston's Fleet Center to play for the state championship title.

Through the regular season, first-year head coach Matt Mincone and his players knew they had what it took to contend against the toughest teams in their Division II South league.

But some key losses during the season left spectators questioning the Vineyard's ability to go the distance.

At the Chelmsford Ice Arena Sunday afternoon, the Vineyard team, seeded fourth in the south sectional finals, fought off the number-two seeded Duxbury to come away with a stunning 3-0 victory. "Our playing was nothing short of excellent," said Mr. Mincone.

It was a week after the team's magical 5-2 win against the top-seeded Sandwich in the semifinals. During the regular season, the Island beat Sandwich 6-3 only to lose 4-2 when they met again.

Defying the odds, the boys proved they have what it takes to become champions. The Duxbury High Dragons were 43-1-2 against Division II opponents since 1998, and this season the team averaged better than five goals a game. The Vineyarders moved from Division III to Division II for the 2002 season and have refused to cower before the new challenges.

The drive to Chelmsford, bordering New Hampshire, took the Vineyard team and its fans more than two hours, by far the longest trip made this season for a game. The Island skaters had to catch the 9:30 a.m. boat to prepare for the 2:50 p.m. game, but they did not succumb to fatigue.

The Vineyard side of the arena was packed Sunday afternoon with more than a 150 dedicated fans whose spirit gave the Island team the sense of playing on home ice.

"V-I-N-E-Y-A-R-D - Vineyard!" boomed the crowd just before the puck hit the ice for the opening face-off. Duxbury came out skating fast and overwhelmed the Vineyard, keeping the puck in the Island zone and firing a storm of shots on goalie Jeff Smadbeck. But it was the junior goalie who made one athletic save after another for all 45 minutes, shutting down Duxbury's ferocious offense despite an array of quality shots on net.

There were slap shots from the blue line, breakaways, one-touch shots, sudden wrist snaps, but all came to naught as Smadbeck made glove saves, stick saves, pad saves and covered saves, 35 in all, that left Duxbury scratching their heads.

One Duxbury fan called out from the stands, "Shoot the puck, he can't save them all!" But save them all he did.

"[Smadbeck] had a miraculous game," said Mr. Mincone. "He had 10 phenomenal saves."

Duxbury's onslaught slackened when the first penalty of the game - for slashing - was called against them with 9:27 remaining in the first period. The Vineyard pressed hard, keeping the puck in Duxbury's zone. Fifty-one seconds into the penalty, Derek Avakian, positioned midway between the blue line and goal, received a crisp pass from teammate Kraig Mundt and fired a slapshot into the top right corner of the Duxbury net.

The Vineyard fans erupted with applause.

Duxbury, back to five men, returned with intensity. But the Island's solid defense, led by senior captain Tim Bettencourt, controlled the opponents' fire.

With less than two minutes remaining in the first period, Duxbury made a mistake that left two Islanders, Kraig Mundt and John Gibson, with the puck, breaking from the neutral zone and facing just one defenseman.

Gibson took the puck toward the goal, luring the defenseman toward him. At the last second, Gibson passed the puck to Mundt who backhanded it across the front of the goalie into the right side of the net for a score.

Coach Mincone, donned in a blue cap, patted his players on the shoulders and spoke words of encouragement as they headed into the locker room up 2-0.

"Going to the game, I knew how good Duxbury was. I told the team, ‘They're just high school kids, too. Do not underestimate yourselves,'" Mr. Mincone said.

In the locker room, Mr. Mincone told his 22 players they'd won the first of three 15-minute games and must win the next two. He had watched Duxbury, in its semifinals game, score two goals with just 19 seconds left on the game clock. "We were not safe until the horn blew," said Mr. Mincone.

In the second period, the Dragons appeared stunned by Vineyard's lead and lackluster compared to their energy out of the starting gates. Throughout the second period, both Duxbury's sophomore goalie Mike Zarella and the Vineyard's Smadbeck displayed stellar goaltending, leaving fans on both sides of the arena in awe.

With 5:08 in the second period, two penalties called on the Vineyard left the Island team two men short for more than a minute of play. The Vineyard's Max Sherman, Ben Gunn and Brandyn Sylvia kept their composure and fended off Duxbury's attack until the penalty time expired. During the penalty time, Island fans watched in suspense as a series of shots flew at Smadbeck, who even defended the net for some 20 seconds without his stick.

In the third period, Duxbury, feeling their season's end upon them, showed its discipline and skill, running tight and patient offensive plays, continuing to threaten the Island's lead.

But the minutes remaining turned into seconds. Duxbury pulled their goalie. With 22 seconds on the clock, Gunn stole the puck from a frantic Duxbury offense, skated up the ice with Draggons in pursuit and sealed the Vineyard's win by shooting the puck into the open net.

Back in mid-January, Coach Mincone and his team traveled to Cambridge to take on Boston Latin. He asked the bus driver to make sure he passed by the Fleet Center. When they did, the coach turned to his players and said, "We went this way for a reason. It's time to bring the trophy back to the Island."

The Vineyard team travels Sunday to the Boston Fleet Center to take on St. Mary's, another school which moved from Division III to Division II this year as well. The 9:30 a.m. boat will connect Islanders with fan buses going to the Fleet Center Sunday morningg. The price for travel is $10; Fleet Center admission is separate. To reserve a seat, call Gail Avakian at 508-627-4919.