After upending Winston Churchill High School by identical 5-1 scores in each of their two previous meetings with the Bulldogs, Thomas S. Wootton's ice hockey coaches and players realized the third meeting would likely be considerably tougher.
Wootton (14-0) may not have been at its best throughout the contest on Monday evening in the Montgomery Hockey Conference final, but the Patriots were not about to let the Bulldogs end their unbeaten season. Wootton got a late empty-net goal from Luke Klecker to secure a 4-2 victory over the Bulldogs at the Wheaton Ice Arena, securing the Patriots' berth in the Maryland Student Hockey League's state quarterfinals on Monday at the Gardens Ice House in Laurel.
“I have never been so happy to see an empty net goal,” said Wootton coach Dave Evans, who is in his 20th season. “They got it to within 3-2 with about five minutes left and then with two minutes left you knew they're going to pull their goalie and look for the extra attacker and hope to get the tying goal that sends it into overtime. If that happens, who knows what happens in overtime. But tonight they showed a lot of character. We really hadn't been tested this year. So, to be in a close game like this and find a way to win really showed me something.”
In fact, Wootton had won its 12 league contests by an average margin of seven goals per game and its two 5-1 wins over Churchill perhaps gave further indication of their overall superiority among the Montgomery squads. By the same token, the Patriots' players knew the Bulldogs were not going to go away quietly in Monday's final.
“We saw that they played more of a trap and we made some mistakes against it,” said Wootton senior captain Jordan Bretner, who had an assist on the Patriots first goal. “We tried to force some things through the trap and it cost us early. Once we settled down and played the puck around it, we were fine. But that last five minutes was tough. Until Luke scored that goal, it really was nerve-wracking.”
Another Wootton senior captain, Austin Schoenfeld, agreed with his teammate. Schoenfeld, whose third period power play goal gave the Patriots a 3-1 lead with 13 minutes, 51 seconds remaining, admitted the tension was mounting in the final five minutes until Klecker's clincher.
“We notched they were playing more of a trap and they had their best player, Junmno Kim, back for this game,” Schoenfeld said. “We made some bad passes that led them to some good scoring chances. They were pretty lucky to get them. We're looking forward to facing some teams from outside the county. It will be good competition and it's exciting to be able to play for a state championship.”
Wootton scored the game's first goal on a power play when Brandon Hall deflected a shot from the point past Churchill sophomore goalie Marcus Hurd for a 1-0 lead at 4:25. But Wootton suffered through several bouts of carelessness with the puck in its own zone and Churchill junior Ross Allen made the Patriots pay for one mistake when he cradled an errant pass and blasted it past Wootton goalie Jake Mitchel to tie the game 1-1 with 3:41 left in the opening period.
“We knew that is we could stay close to them early that we would have a shot,” Allen said. “We got that first goal and you could feel the whole team get a lot more confident. We just needed to convert on some other chances.”
Churchill got one of those chances early in the second period, but failed to capitalize. The Bulldogs forced Mitchell to make five saves during their first power play chance, but the Patriots' keeper was up to the task. Not long after the teams were at even strength, Wootton's Adam Kaplan gave the Patriots a 2-1 lead.
A similar, pivotal scenario unfolded later in the second period. Churchill had two consecutive power plays, with a two-man advantage for 32 seconds but failed to get the equalizer. Wootton opened the third period with a power play and the Patriots forged a two-goal lead when Schoenfeld scored with 13:51 remaining.
With just over five minutes remaining in the game, Churchill narrowed the deficit in half when Philip Satin scored with the teams at even strength. With less than 90 seconds remaining the Bulldogs brought on the extra attacker when Hurd raced to the bench. But the advantage never materialized and Klecker sealed the verdict with an empty net goal with 1:08 remaining.