A day before his team's Division III quarterfinal, Masuk hockey coach Andrew Townsend told junior goalie Connor Muller in practice that Muller was going to have to win a game for the Panthers to advance deep in the postseason.
Muller passed his coach's test with flying colors on Thursday.
Muller made 25 saves -- including all nine shots he faced in the third period -- and the No. 1 Panthers advanced to the Division III semifinals for the fourth time in six years with a 6-3 win over No. 8 Staples/Weston/Shelton at the Wonderland of Ice. The Panthers will face E.O. Smith/Tolland/Windham on Tuesday at Ingalls Rink in New Haven for a spot in the championship game.
"(Muller) played really well," said Masuk sophomore Brian Denham, who had two goals and two assists. "We all have confidence in the kid. He's worked his tail off to get where he is right now."
Trailing 4-3 entering the final period, the Wreckers, who finished their season 9-13-1, had many quality chances to draw even -- including breakaways by Jack Mendillo and Derek Nussbaum -- but Muller was up to the task.
"For whatever reason, it wasn't our night," Staples coach Todd Sharinn said. "The boys played really hard. I couldn't be more proud of a group of kids than I am of this team. ¦ We had more than ample opportunity to net six or seven goals. A couple of those go our way and the complexion changes."
The Panthers (18-5) blitzed Staples with two goals in 26 seconds midway through the first period to open the scoring. Dave Reid hit a shot in off the crossbar after the first shot hit the glass and bounced to his stick. Shane Dushay (one goal, three assists), made it 2-0 after his shot tricked through Staples goalie Will Englehart (30 saves).
Mendillo, who scored twice and added an assist, scored on a shorthanded breakaway to cut the deficit in half with one minute left in the first. However, the Panthers scored on the same power play with four seconds left to reestablish the two-goal cushion.
"We wanted to get a lot of shots off early," Townsend said. "We saw that there were some rebounds there. The big goal was getting that one with four seconds left on the power play."
The Wreckers cut the deficit to a single goal twice in the second period, including a power play goal by Nussbaum that made it 4-3 heading into the final 15 minutes.
Denham opened the third period with a bang, tipping in a shot from the point by Dan Zakrzewski 1:35 into the frame to give the Panthers another two-goal lead.
"One of the biggest reasons for our success is our depth," Townsend said. "We are able to roll three lines consistently. Our team speed as well; our first two lines can fly."
Denham added an empty net goal with 35 seconds remaining.
After being snakebitten in recent years -- the Panthers have zero finals appearances despite consistently making the final four -- Masuk hopes to make this trip to Yale count.
"Everyone needs to be on board and together as a team," Denham said. "If we stick to our system, we can win."
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STAPLES 1 2 0--3
MASUK 3 1 2--6
Records: Staples 9-13-1; Masuk 18-5. Goals: S--Jack Mendillo 2, Derek Nussbaum. M--Dan Zakrzewski, Charlie Christo, Shane Dushay, Dave Reid, Brian Denham 2. Assists: S--Mendillo, Nussbaum, Eric Zurmuehle, Ryan Johnson; M--Dushay 3, Christo, Denham 2, Zakrzewski, George Andros. Goalies: S--Will Englehart (30 saves) M--Connor Muller (25). Shots: S--28; M--36