Quite simply, they were not expected to get this far.
After Monday’s epic 4-3, 11-round shootout victory over Wilmington in the Division 1 North final at Tsongas Arena, the Reading High boys’ hockey team will play in the state final, taking on Braintree at TD Garden Sunday.
The 12th seed in a 17-team field, the Rockets were underdogs in every tourney game they played.
But Reading knocked off four of the top five seeds en route to the North crown.
“I don’t look at the numbers,” said Reading coach Mark Doherty of the playoff seeds. “Whoever we play, we play.
“The seniors truly grabbed the bull by the horn,” he added of his team’s stretch run. “They became leaders in the room, and you could never underestimate what that does to young kids.”
At the beginning of the season, with the Rockets minus 17 seniors from last year’s run to the Super 8, there were more questions than answers. An appearance in the state final seemed farfetched.
A 2-0 loss to defending Division 1 champion Burlington on Jan. 27, the team’s third straight loss, dropped Reading to 6-7-2. But the Rockets then reeled off 10 wins in their next 11 games in a stretch of inspired hockey that set the table for a deep postseason run.
“It just kept giving us more and more momentum each game,” said senior forward Mike Thomson , whose backhander past goaltender Drew Foley in the 11th round of Monday’s shootout punched the Rockets’ ticket to Sunday’s final.
Chants of “MVP” rained down from the Reading fan section as Thomson geared up for the most important shot of his life.
“That just gets me going,” Thomson said of embracing the chants before his pressure-filled moment.
“I live for that stuff.”
Reading’s impressive skate into the state final would not have been possible without the stellar performance of senior goalie Ian Lapham , who made 29 stops through two overtime sessions, in addition to nine saves in the shootout.
“I knew that if I let that puck in, my career was going to be over,” Lapham said of the shootout rounds. “It was literally do or die right there . . . I was not going to let those pucks in.”
Lapham, along with fellow seniors Thomson and defenseman Mike Seibold , has been the catalyst for Reading in their tourney run.
“We don’t care who we’re playing,” Lapham said. “We just want to play our best game and we know if we do that, we can beat any team out there.”
Doherty admits his team has “a lot of work to do” before Sunday’s championship tilt. Fifty-seven minutes of action Monday night, in addition to the 11 shootout rounds, was physically and mentally draining.
for state title
In the Division 2 North final Monday, Beverly pounced early and never let up in a dominating 9-1 win over Tewksbury.
Senior center Connor Irvin, the program’s all-time leading scorer, tallied four goals and one assist to propel the Panthers (21-1-1) to their first Division 2 state title appearance, where they will face South champion Medfield (18-3-3) at TD Garden.
Tewksbury struck first, but with Irving and linemates Ryan Santo (five assists) and Jessie MacLaughlin (one goal, two assists) igniting the attack, Beverly responded with nine straight goals, including five in the second period.
“When they’re in the open ice, you see what they can do,” Beverly coach Bob Gilligan said of his talented first line. “We started to wear them out and once we’re on, we can go.”
The win also brought with it a major sense of relief.
In the previous two postseasons, Beverly had been ousted by Saugus (2013, first round in OT) and Danvers (2012, quarterfinanls).
“We were so far, but so close, those past two years,” Santo recalled. “It feels like everything we did wasn’t good enough.”
The Danvers loss was a “thorn” in the Panthers’ side, an early exit that didn’t sit well with Gilligan’s top-seeded squad and only motivated them heading into this winter.
Beverly knocked that monkey off its back with a 2-1 overtime win over the Falcons in the quarterfinals two weeks ago.
“This year, we’re getting the bounces,” Santo added. “We still got one more to go, and that’s obviously the big one, so we got to finish it off.”
It’s been a long time coming for Beverly’s 10 seniors, who include forward Graham Doherty (17 goals, 15 assists this season), fellow linemate J.J. Bachini (six goals, 12 assists), and defenseman Matt Hamor .
A pair of juniors, goaltender Tim Bararelli and defenseman Nick Albano (eight goals, 36 assists) have also been pivotal in Beverly reaching Sunday’s state final.
“We’re just trying to digest this, and we’ll get back, I’ll watch the films,” Gilligan said of the matchup with Medfield.
“I’m sure we’re in for a skate, every game’s a skate; you’ve got to be ready to go.”
Here and there
■ A 2-1 overtime loss to Arlington Catholic in the D1 state semifinals ended an impressive postseason run for the Austin Prep girls (15-6-3) , which including wins over seventh-seeded Reading and second-seeded Beverly/Danvers.
“We’re young, we’ll get over it, and we’ll bounce back,” Austin Prep coach Stephanie Wood said of her team’s season. “We’ll be back next season on a tear and ready to go.
“There’s that little taste of success and being so close to getting to the Garden,” she added. “You’ll see a very fueled and driven group of girls.” . . .
■ The two-time defending Division 2 state champion Wilmington boys were one goal away from reaching a third straight final, this year in Division 1, after their move up in the offseason.
“We’ve got a lot to be proud of,” Wilmington coach Steve Scanlon said after Monday’s 4-3 loss to Reading. “I don’t think anyone expected us near this game this year after all the talent we graduated.” . . .
■ Tewksbury junior goalie Kyle Pacquette was tremendous (1.29 goals against average, .933 save percentage, seven shutouts in 22 games) all season. Monday night, against Beverly, was an off night against an explosive Beverly attack.
“Kyle had a great season; we can’t judge anything by one game,” said coach Derek Doherty. ” We went with him the whole year. . . . he’ll be back next year.”Joseph Saade can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.