Ayer Shirley hockey team takes aim at defense of its state championship

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FITCHBURG — There’s a saying that has floated through the ether of time: quality over quantity. The quality is always better — unless the quantity comes down to the number of trophies won.

That mantra is flowing through Route 2A right now, as the No. 3 Ayer Shirley/Lunenburg boys hockey team, backed by two goals and an assist by Connor Viviano and a short-handed goal by Sean Simpson, will return to the Central Mass. final for the second consecutive season after downing No. 2 Grafton/Blackstone Valley, 3-1, in Tuesday’s Division 3A Central semifinal at the Gaetz Arena.

The Blue Knights, the reigning state champions in the division, improved to 15-6-1 and will advance to Sunday’s Central Mass. final, where they’ll take on Northbridge at the Wallace Civic Center in Fitchburg at 4:30 p.m. Grafton’s season came to a close at 14-4-4.

Longtime Ayer/Lunenburg coach Eric Short was thrilled with the win, which came even though the Indians had maintained a great deal of the possession — especially during a five-minute major power play early in the third period.

“We’ve had some adversity that we’ve been fighting through, we have a shorter bench than we’ve had all year. The goal was to keep it close into the third, and play good defensive hockey all night,” Short said. “We had to keep the puck out of the funnel in front of the net, control rebounds, have good goaltending. We did all of that.

“And the goal came, and it came at a crazy time; you kill a major, you think the game is in desperation or in trouble; that was probably the best penalty kill that I’ve seen in 20 years behind the bench.”

Even though it was out-shot 33-17, Ayer/Lunenburg picked the perfect opportunities to bury the puck and advance to Sunday’s final. And while Grafton, which had leveled the game at 1-1 early in the second period, had plenty of touches and shots during the second five-minute major power play of the game, it was the way Ayer/Lunenburg had killed it off that was key.

While Grafton had killed off a five-minute A/L power play in the first period by keeping the puck in the neutral and Knight defensive zones, the Indians had control of their power play in the Blue Knights’ end.

The only thing standing in the way? The four-man rotating wall of the Knights, and goalie Nick Granger (32 saves).

But sensing opportunity in the last half-minute of the power play, Viviano flicked the puck to Simpson and sent play the other way, and the senior dented twine to put Lunenburg back in front, 2-1, only 6:09 into the third.

“He had a kid right on him, he picks his head up and finishes,” Short said.

It would stay that way until the final 35 seconds of the game, when Viviano popped home an empty-netter.

Despite having six in the defensive zone for more than half of the first period, the Blue Knights opened the scoring with less than a quarter of a minute remaining. Viviano had spun and fired the puck off a Grafton player’s stick.

It had enough deflection and English behind it to get over Grafton goalie Cam Powell’s (15 saves) right shoulder, and the Blue Knights had a 1-0 lead after 15 minutes.

Matthew Albert and Nathan Handy were credited with assists, as Albert won the faceoff to Powell’s left, and Handy had back-handed the puck goalward before the Indians attempted to clear it.

Granger, along with the play of Ayer/Lunenburg blue-liners in Declan Fitzpatrick and Brendan Ware, kept Grafton off the scoreboard.

They couldn’t hold the Indians forever, as Charles Farrah, after the puck had cycled behind the Knight net and found itself crossed out to the point, buried home the rebound on a backhand only 6:09 into the middle period.

Three minutes and change later, Baker had tried to backhand it home, but Granger stopped it after Baker found a seam and charged toward the net.

Farrah had a one-time attempt to make it 2-1 with 65 seconds left in the second, but his attempt was wide. Twenty seconds later, he would get close, to no avail.