NORTH BILLERICA — Austin Prep cycled the puck around the offensive zone, probing the Newburyport defense for an opening. With less than 30 seconds left, down by one and on the power play, the Cougars had pulled their goalie to finish the game with a 6 on 4 advantage. It was, for both teams, a desperate situation.
The Clippers have been here before, and for most of the past decade, these sorts of situations have ended in heartbreak. So it was no surprise that when Jacob Grossi-Hogg picked off an Austin Prep pass with 10 seconds left and chucked it down the ice, the Newburyport fan contingent erupted in unbridled excitement. Once Ethan Coir collected the puck and found Matt Babcock in front of the empty net for the dagger, the celebration was on at the Chelmsford Forum.
"Unbelievable, we've been dreaming of this, we didn't make the tournament last year and the two times before that we lost in the first round," said Babcock, who scored two goals in Newburyport's 3-1 Division 1 North quarterfinal win. "So especially not making the tournament last year it's big to get a win against a good team."
Newburyport has been waiting a long time for a win like Saturday's — 2,920 days to be exact. That's how long it had been since the team's last tournament win, which came almost eight years to the day prior when the Clippers beat Peabody in the 2010 Division 2 state semifinals. That team would go on to lose to Canton in the state championship game at the TD Garden, and since then the program has endured six consecutive one-and-done tournament runs, followed by last year when the team missed the tournament altogether for the first time in 14 years.
"It feels good, but at the same time we understand it's a one-game playoff," Newburyport coach Paul Yameen said of breaking the losing streak. "I've said it before and I'll say it again, we've lost games I felt like we should have won in past tournaments, that's the way it is. We just beat a good Catholic school, so that's a part of our past."
To avoid a potential repeat of past tournament losses, Newburyport made sure to jump on Austin Prep early, asserting themselves in the first period to dictate the pace of play. The Clippers got on the board about halfway through the period after Patrick Leary fed Matt Babcock near the front of the net, and after his initial shot was saved, Jacob Grossi-Hogg pounced on the rebound and put it in to put the Clippers ahead 1-0.
The second period was a much different story, as the Clippers committed a litany of miscues that could have proven calamitous, but unlike in past years, Austin Prep wasn't able to capitalize. There was an ill-timed turnover leading to a shot off the crossbar, a pair of two-on-ones where the Cougars shot the puck wide, and a hooking penalty that forced the Clippers to play man-down for the last two minutes of the period. Despite all the issues, Newburyport maintained the 1-0 lead, thanks in large part to the steady brilliance of Hodge, who made 13 of his 29 saves in the period.
Once the third period came around, Hodge was rewarded by his teammates with what later turned out to be the game-winning goal. Babcock picked a defender's pocket near the blue line and was able to force his way to the net. He deked to the left, finished with the backhand, and just like that Newburyport had a 2-0 lead with 8:39 to play.
Austin Prep wasn't ready to go away, as the Cougars cut into the deficit when Kevin Urquhart redirected a shot from the point from Max Pineo to make it 2-1 with 4:55 left. Shortly after, Austin Prep was called for a backbreaking holding penalty with 3:04 left, but the Cougars were bailed out when Newburyport committed a tripping penalty to break up a potential scoring chance less than a minute later. That ensured that for most of the final minute, Austin Prep would have a 6 on 4 advantage after pulling its goalie.
It was a tough situation, but unlike in past years, Newburyport survived.
"It's special, it's really special," Hodge said. "We have a great group of guys in here, we were working our butts off all game, and we knew they were coming in, they didn't respect us, and we had to take advantage of that, and we did, we pulled out a win and I'm so happy."
Newburyport (13-3-6) will now face No. 7 seeded Winchester (14-7-2) in the Division 1 North semifinals on Wednesday at 7:30 p.m. at the Tsongas Center in Lowell. Newburyport beat Winchester 1-0 in their previous meeting this season back on Dec. 27.
Notably, with Super 8 qualifiers Arlington and St. Mary's of Lynn's losses on Saturday, the No. 3 seeded Clippers now stand as the top remaining seed left in the Division 1 North field.
Newburyport 3, Austin Prep 1
Austin Prep (13-8-1): 0 0 1 — 1
Newburyport (13-3-6): 1 0 2 — 3
Division 1 North Quarterfinals
Goals: N — Matt Babcock 2, Jacob Grossi-Hogg; AP — Kevin Urquhart
Assists: N — Patrick Leary, Ethan Coir, Babcock, Grossi-Hogg; AP — Max Pineo
Saves: N — Ken Hodge 29; AP — Robert Farrell 16