Hopedale/Millis gave it all it had, but Lunenburg/Ayer-Shirley’s experience and defensive effort proved to be decisive, as the Blue Raiders fell, 4-2, at the Wallace Civic Center.

FITCHBURG – Prior to this season, the Hopedale/Millis boys hockey team had never won a single postseason contest.

The Blue Raiders had made the playoffs before, but were always dumped out in the first round. Not only did H/M make the postseason once again this year as the No. 2 seed in Division 3A, but the program made massive strides, winning a pair of playoff games on its way to earning a spot in the 3A title game.

Its opponent? No. 5 Lunenburg/Ayer-Shirley, a program against which it lost in the opening round last year. This was also a team that the Blue Raiders beat during the regular season, 5-1.

These Blue Knights were different, though, having eliminated top-seeded Northbridge and with Wednesday night’s game being their third straight appearance in the 3A final.

H/M gave it all it had, but Lunenburg/Ayer-Shirley’s experience and defensive effort proved to be decisive, as the Blue Raiders fell, 4-2, at the Wallace Civic Center.

Lunenburg/Ayer-Shirley moves on to face the Greenfield vs. Wahconah winner in the Div. 3A state final (date, location TBA).

"This was a great bunch of kids that worked extremely hard," first-year H/M coach Mike MacQuarrie said after his team concluded its campaign 12-6-5. "I’m proud of these guys. They really competed hard all year. We made great strides at both ends of the ice. We had our share of illnesses and injuries, including missing (senior captain) PJ Gray – our top goal scorer – for six games and we still got here.

"I know right now, the guys aren’t thinking it was a successful season, but in a few days, when the dust settles, they’ll realize they accomplished a lot. A lot of firsts this year."

Both Gray and fellow senior captain Nick Patterson, who are both from Milford and the only two seniors on the team, understood how much the program improved this year. That being said, both were disappointed to get the opportunity to play for a title and not bring it home.

"I think PJ and I and the rest of the group are really proud of how far we’ve come and proud that we got here," Patterson said. "But obviously it just sucks to make it to this game and come up short. Overall, we had a really successful season. A month before the season, we didn’t even have a coach. We bonded together and became a family.

"Again, really proud of our group and hopefully some of these younger guys we have will step up next year."

"It obviously sucks losing in the finals, but that just shows us that we all stuck with the same process during the season," Gray said. "Right now, it stinks, but I’m going to look back on this loss and just be proud of how far we came."

Lunenberg/Ayer-Shirley got on the board first with 4:04 left in the opening period when Matt Albert one-timed a Nate Handy feed five-hole from the slot.

The Blue Knights killed off a four-minute H/M power play in the second, and with 4:06 on the clock Albert doubled their advantage when he banged home a rebound after Handy’s initial shot was saved.

"We like to score first, it takes a little pressure off of us," MacQuarrie said. "We’re young on defense and young in net. We’re a little bit more relaxed when we have a lead. So it was tough to give up a couple first. But we’ve come back before, we have a good offense, and we hadn’t been shut out all year. When we got down, we just kept battling back."

Battle they did, as junior Hunter Dunn halved the deficit short-handed 3:59 into the third when we stole the puck at the blue line, walked in, made a move to his backhand, and tucked it in.

Handy restored Lunenburg’s two-goal lead with 6:02 left to play, but Gray answered right back 10 seconds later when he banged home a loose puck in front.

With 2:10 left to play, freshman Brady Butler thought he’d tied it up with a low shot from the low slot. He even started to raise his hands, before the puck squirted out from underneath Blue Nights goalie Nick Granger’s pads (24 saves).

"I thought he did it," Gray said. "A lot of us thought he did it. That would’ve been awesome."