Published March 6, 2019


NORTH BILLERICA — After countless practices, numerous sessions in the weight room, and twenty hard-fought games, the Lynnfield Pioneer hockey team reached the postseason only to see their hopes for a prolonged playoff run snuffed out in the MIAA North Division 2 first round.

Scoreless through two in last Tuesday night’s contest at the Chelmsford Forum, the Pioneers traded third period goals with the No. 7 Tewksbury but were ultimately eliminated with 1:47 remaining in the sudden defeat overtime segment.

Tewksbury (15-4-3) advanced to the semifinals and defeated Lincoln-Sudbury in yet another 2-1 overtime thriller while No. 10 Lynnfield wrapped up the 2018-19 campaign with an enviable 11-6-4 overall mark.

Lynnfield head coach Jon Gardner found it difficult to mask his disappointment and with good reason. Last year, his club suffered a 2-1 tournament defeat to Wilmington, also in the first round and the season before, a 5-2 loss to Saugus in the quarterfinals. The current seniors on this team have one playoff win in four tries over the last several years.

“Honestly, this is my fifth or six 2-1 loss over my career, both coaching and playing,” said Gardner. “You realize that the margin of error is very thin. We picked the worst time of the season for our offense to turn quiet. We didn’t get shutout all year and then in games 19 and 20, we were shutout.”

AIDAN KELLY was locked in from the start during Lynnfield’s first round matchup against Tewksbury on Feb. 26. The senior captain held a strong offense to one goal in regulation and had 31 saves. (Robin DeBenedictis Photo)

The coach was referring to a scoreless tie with Westwood followed by a 4-0 defeat to Gloucester in the regular season finale. Prior to those shortcomings, Lynnfield was 5-0-1 down the stretch.

Facing Tewksbury, the Pioneers were slow to start. In fact, the Redmen carried the play, at times, freewheeling in the offensive zone. The difference at the outset, clearly, was Lynnfield goaltender Aidan Kelly, who turned aside 31 shots in the effort. Kelly stonewalled Tewksbury while his teammates labored to relieve the pressure and manufacture scoring chances.

“In the biggest moment, he had his best game of the year,” said Gardner. “I can’t say enough. He kept us in the game. Hats off to Aidan. He played a great tournament game. He is a tremendous senior captain and he deserved a better fate.”

Late in the first period, line mates George DeRoche and Will Garofoli nearly put Lynnfield in front, moving the puck deftly into the zone with rapid touch passes and leaving it for trailer John Simonetti. Redmen netminder Patrick Letourneau, who had seen little work to that juncture, proved equal to the task and gloved Simonetti’s wristshot earmarked for the top shelf.

Later, Samuel Pifko had a great solo bid, stealing the puck and skating in alone. He, too, was denied by Letourneau, who stopped 19 in all. As the game wore on, the officials pocketed their whistles, obviously not willing to play a role in altering the outcome unless necessary. Lynnfield’s sole man-advantage opportunity, at the outset of the third period, resulted in four chances, including a DeRoche blast from the point that broke off the blade of Letourneau’s stick and nearly trickled in.

“The power play helped,” said Gardner when it was pointed out that his team skated far better in the second and into the third period. “During that power play, we almost cashed in but hit a post. All year, we’ve said this is a game of millimeters.”

Soon after killing off the penalty, Tewksbury went on the attack and snapped the stalemate. Jason Cooke ripped a long distance shot that Kelly routinely knocked down with the blocker but the rebound landed on the waiting stick of Will O’Keefe, who drilled it home to put the Redmen in front, 1-0.

With 7:54 left in regulation, DeRoche one-timed the equalizer from the right point after Simonetti won a key draw in the circle to Letourneau’s left and sent the puck back. A jubilant celebration ensued, soon followed by a stretch of nail-biting.

Aside from a penalty shot, there are few circumstances in hockey more exciting – and more heart-stopping – than overtime. Lynnfield had a pair of bids but Tewksbury controlled the four-on-four, containing the puck, and methodically setting up for the one shot that might put it away. Michael Arsenault found that shot, with 1:47 remaining, beating Kelly glove side and ending Lynnfield’s season.

“We knew Tewksbury had a good top six, or nine for that matter and they were going to be buzzing around,” said Gardner. “We have a lot of guys who played in the tournament last year but they seemed overwhelmed at times. We were pretty gassed at the end but we were going to go down with our guys.”