WOBURN — Other than the fact the 20th seeded boys' hockey team beat them twice during the regular season, every other indicator seemed to favor a victory.
The two teams entered Tuesday night’s MIAA Division 2 North Sectional tournament preliminary round showdown at heading on two different paths: the 13th seeded Raiders went 5-1 down the stretch, outscoring their opponents by a 31-9 margin during that span, while the Spartans lost four of their last five and were outscored by a nearly identical margin, 30-9.
But as the saying goes: that’s why they play the games.
Despite managing only four wins during the 2010-2011 campaign and limping into the postseason, Stoneham (5-13-1) skated past Watertown, 6-3, to advance to the second round of the playoffs.
Scott Shannon and Mike Kelly each tallied a pair of goals for Stoneham, while Brendon Donovon and Mark Kutowksi also lit the lamp for the Spartans.
Meanwhile, Watertown's James Garbier, Dino Flori and Connor Demore each posted a goal in the loss.
The Spartans will now face the daunting task of taking on Saugus (12-1-7) in the next round.
“It was a good win for us,” said Stoneham coach Bill Seabury. “We beat them twice during the regular season... (and) getting the lead helped us (get) some momentum.”
At first it appeared the Spartans would run away with the game altogether, as a quick pair of first period goals had Watertown (11-8-4) back on their heels and momentum squarely on the side of the visitors.
With 8:01 left in the opening frame, Shannon beat Raiders’ netminder Alex Hayek to open the Spartans’ account. Ben Allen collected the assist on the goal. Exactly 30 seconds later, the puck came to Donovon at the point, and he rifled one by Hayek to give Stoneham a 2-0 lead with 7:31 left in the opener.
“The first one, I think (Shannon) caught Alex (Hayek) off guard,” said Watertown coach John Campbell. “He had it and it just kind of slipped in between his arm and dropped in the net, and the second one, it came from the point, he was screened, it was right on the ice and he didn’t see it.
“What happened there was exactly what I didn’t want to happen.”
The Raiders netted 95 goals during the regular season, but the offense responsible for that gaudy number was largely absent during the early stages of Tuesday night’s game, and after falling behind, it appeared as thought the Raiders were in danger of unraveling altogether.
When Stoneham’s Kutowski found the net with 10:23 left in the third, it looked like the rout was on, and when Shannon collected his second of the night with 5:30 on the clock all hope seemed lost for Watertown.
“We played pretty even for the first five or six minutes,” Campbell said. “Then they got a couple of goals, and we fell behind 4-0.”
It appeared all the Spartans had to do was play defense and run out the clock. With less than a minute remaining in the second period however, the Raiders came to life.
Defenseman Mike Baccari sent a pass in to Flori who put the Raiders on the board with a deftly executed close-range shot past Stoneham goalie Dan Lumb with 32.7 seconds in the frame.
The strike seemed almost an afterthought at the time; with the period expiring, and the Spartans still held a sizable three-goal lead. But what didn’t show up in the 4-1 scoreline heading into the final stanza, was the shift in momentum caused by the goal.
“We gave up that goal at the end of the second, and that was a bad goal,” Seabury said. “That gave them the momentum back. We made a couple of bad decisions with the puck and they got back in there.”
The change was apparent in the Raiders’ play from the get-go in the third period. As soon as the puck was dropped, it was clear that Watertown had no intention of letting go its season without a fight.
“The guys worked hard, they never gave up,” Campbell said. “I’m proud of them, they worked hard.”
The hard work paid off.
Garbier and Demore netted goals 34 seconds apart for the Raiders, making it 4-3 with 12:04 to play and ensuring that span would be the longest 12 minutes of the year for the Spartans.
Watertown had several close chances fall by the boards, and only when Kelly scored the first of his two empty-net goals in the waning moments of the game was the outcome finally settled. Kelly notched his only two scores of the contest in the final minute.
The task at hand for the Spartans is now a date with Saugus Thursday at O’Brien Rink at 7 p.m. Seabury knows his squad will be heavy underdogs, but he also knows that isn’t always such a bad thing to be.
“Nobody expects us to do anything, so the pressure isn’t on us,” he said. “I think we’ll be competitive... our goal is just to try and win and do the best we can.”
Jumping out to a fast start like they did Tuesday night certainly wouldn't hurt matters.