When your hockey team succeeds against the odds all season long, reaches the state semifinals for just the second time in nearly 20 years and has to go through a powerhouse of a team with two dominant players to reach the state finals, what do you need to do to advance?
That’s what the Sweet Home Panthers did on Saturday afternoon, upending the Auburn Maroons (Section III) 6-4 at the HarborCenter to reach the first state championship game in school history.
“All of our big guns come through today,” coach Dave Gerspach said. “I’ll tell you what – I don’t know if I’ve ever coached against a better team than Auburn. They’ve got a lot of talent and speed, and they kept coming and never gave up. I give them a lot of credit, but we were pretty resilient and stuck together.
“I first started with a lot of these guys four years ago, and I’ve grown up with them. I’ve probably spent more time with them than with my own kids, and to win with this group of guys is awesome.”
Despite being outshot by counts of 16-8, 28-13 and 39-23, two reasons were the main factors behind the Panthers emerging with the victory. The first was junior goaltender Michael Lisman, who despite allowing four goals, faced an onslaught of quality scoring chances and gave the Panthers a chance to win by notching 35 saves.
“Lisman was fantastic,” Gerspach said. “He’s been our best player since New Year’s Day, and in these type of tournaments you need to have good goaltending. There’s no way you can get around it. Not to knock on Auburn, but their goaltending wasn’t up to the task and ours was.”
“I knew that, considering the amount of talent Auburn had, they were going to get some good chances on us, but I couldn’t let it get to my head,” Lisman said. “I just had to shrug it off and keep going. Thank God for my teammates, they played well in front of me and also got us some goal support.”
The second was Gerspach’s insistence on shadowing the Maroons’ best players. John Malandruccolo and Jacob Morin, who combined for 150 points, multiple hat tricks and two five-goal games apiece this season, were identified as the straws who stirred the Maroons’ drink, and Gerspach didn’t want to let the opposition take a sip.
“We decided to shadow them all game long with Tyler Edholm, Colin Regian, Blake Russo and Eric Abbate, which is something we’ve never done before against one guy, let alone two,” Gerspach said. “They were too good and too dangerous, so we needed to do something drastic.
“At first, our guys didn’t want to do it because they wanted to be able to skate and make plays. Which makes sense because we’ve got a bunch of guys who can put the puck in the net. Then we watched Auburn on Friday and the kids realized they were for real, so they stuck to the plan.”
Edholm, at first, was one of the players who didn’t warm up to the idea, but eventually bought in.
“We weren’t happy with the idea of having to shadow them, because by doing that we would be taking some of our offensive weapons out of the game,” Edholm said. “At first we didn’t believe in it, but we kept practicing it all week, and it worked out pretty well.”
Russo scored the first goal while the Panthers were shorthanded with 5:19 left in the first. A two-on-one saw Abbate feed Russo with a pass that didn’t quite reach his tape, and while scoring, Russo fell – taking the puck with him beyond the goal line.
Malandruccolo then tied the game up with a wrist shot from the left faceoff circle 6:59 into the second, and Richard Szakalski gave Auburn the lead a short while later. With 45.2 seconds to go in the period, however, Sweet Home tied the score again when Daniel Lund’s shot from the point trickled past Jack Kalabanka.
Early in the third period, Edholm decided to take matters into his own hands by giving the Panthers a 3-2 lead on the power play. In the process of doing so, he broke Ryan Marko’s school record for points in a season with 58 and Alex Esposito’s single-season goal record (31).
“I felt like I was non-existent during the first two periods, so I needed to step up,” Edholm said. “Breaking those records are nice, because that means that my name will be around for a long time, and that future guys who go through this program can look up at me and shoot for this record.”
Five minutes later, Edholm scored again on a wrist shot, but the Maroons wouldn’t go quietly as Brendan Williams made it 4-3 on a wrist shot of his own from the high slot.
Edholm then completed the hat trick by scoring with 5:02 to go on a three-on-one and it looked as if the Panthers would cruise to victory. Before the Panthers could start celebrating the win, however, Regian and Edholm were penalized for tripping and hooking, respectively – giving the Maroons a two-man advantage on the ensuing power play.
“Having to kill off those penalties near the end was really tough because of how well Auburn was playing,” Gerspach said. “I think two guys who don’t get enough credit for us are our penalty killers – Russo and Abbate. A sophomore and freshman, and I don’t think they’ve given up a power play goal the entire year. They’ve also scored about eight shorthanded goals, so they’re pretty phenomenal.”
Auburn would cash in with Williams’ second goal, but Abbate would finish off the game with an empty-netter with 9.8 seconds left.
Following the game, Edholm was seen walking around sporting a t-shirt that read “Gersh never stops.” When asked about the meaning behind it, Edholm explained that their coach was the motivation behind their success, and that their upcoming tilt with West Seneca West for the title will be with him in mind.
“We all have one of these shirts because we love our coach,” Edholm said. “We’d do anything for him, and he’s been here for almost 20 years and hasn’t won a championship. We want to win it for him.”
“I think playing against West Seneca West is the best case scenario for us because we know them well,” Lisman said. “Deep down though, our biggest motivation is getting this done for Gerspach and (assistant coach Brian) Turner. We can’t wait until tomorrow.”
— Frank Wolf (@wolf3328) March 10, 2018