By Mike Zhe
SALEM, N.H. – Three for three, even with an asterisk, of sorts.
Maybe Cushing Academy wasn’t thrilled to be on the outside looking in at the New England elite tournament, but you wouldn’t have known from the joy that followed its 1-0 win over Avon Old Farms in the finals of the Martin/Earl (large school) tournament Sunday at the Icenter.
It was, at least, an elite celebration.
“I’ve been waiting for four years to win something here,” said senior forward Garrett Hehir. “It’s unreal. I can’t describe it. It’s the best feeling of my life.”
The top-seeded Penguins got 31 saves from goalie Mike Dion and made a goal by Shane Kavanagh just 24 seconds into the game stand up. When the final horn sounded, that 1-0 score was still intact, something not many expected with the offensive firepower on each side.
The Penguins mobbed Dion behind their goal, right in front of the white-clad Avon fans who’d made the trip up from Connecticut to cheer their team on.
“I expected a 3-2, 4-3 game,” said Cushing coach Rob Gagnon. “But you never know. That’s why you play.”
“I thought there might be a lot of numbers after that quick one,” said Avon coach John Gardner.
The win clinched the third tournament title this year for the Penguins (21-7-4), who also won an event they hosted and one at Lawrenceville. It’s their first New England crown since they won Division 1 in 1998.
“It’s nice to get it,” said Dion, a backup at his position the previous two seasons. “We set three goals in the beginning of the year, to win three tournaments. It feels good to go three-for-three.”
Things started with a bang. Kavanagh a junior, won a face-off back to classmate Matt Hoover. Hoover’s shot clipped his body and dropped to his feet, and he shot it in from the bottom of the circle.
Dion, playing what Gagnon called “the best game of his Cushing career,” held the fort from there. He benefited from a second-period no-goal call, after officials blew the whistle to his benefit, ruling he had control of the puck.
“I thought the Cushing goalie played really well,” said Gardner. “I thought Cushing came out with a lot of jump in the first period and it took our guys a while to corral them.”
The Penguins nearly took a 2-0 lead into the first intermission, but Hehir’s backhand that hit off goalie Cody Doyle and went in was unloaded just after the horn. Doyle, who wouldn’t blink again, finished with 29 saves.
“I thought he played really well and made a lot of good saves,” said Gardner, whose injury-plagued, third-seeded team finished at 16-9-4. It was seeking its first New England title since winning Division 1 five times between 2004 and ’10.
“We didn’t get done what we wanted to get done,” he added. “We fought through some injuries. We have a lot of tough kids and they competed.”
For Cushing, the biggest challenge this week was regaining their focus after getting left out of the elite field.
“We had a little chip on our shoulders,” said Gagnon. “Our team knew we kind of underperformed throughout the year. We wanted to use this tournament to show our critics that we can be an elite team.”
On Sunday, the Penguins got some elite goaltending, too.