BUFFALO — For nearly 45 minutes, Auburn hockey outshot and outplayed Sweet Home.
The Maroons learned a hard lesson, however, that sometimes hockey can be an cruel game.
Despite peppering the Panthers net with 39 shots, Auburn was defeated by Sweet Home 6-4 on March 10 in the New York Public High School Athletic Association Division II semifinals at the HarborCenter in Buffalo.
The loss leaves Auburn one game short of playing for the state championship for the second time in program history — the Maroons also fell in the state semifinal in 2014.
"I told the boys I thought we were the best team here. I still firmly believe that," Auburn coach Mike Lowe said. "(Sweet Home) had a game plan and did a nice job as far as packing it in and blocking shots and getting a good performance from their goalie.
"The kids played hard and played with class. Sometimes it doesn't go your way."
Brendan Williams scored a pair of goals for the Maroons, including one on the power play, while Johnny Malandruccolo (two assists) and RJ Szakalski also found the back of the net. Jake Morin and Hunter Tubbert picked up assists.
Despite outshooting Sweet Home 28-13 after two periods, Auburn found itself locked in a 2-2 game. Sensing a chance to steal the game in the third, the Panthers buried two goals in the first 6:32 of the period to go ahead 4-2.
The Maroons cut Sweet Home's lead to one twice in the final seven minutes, but ultimately ran out of clock.
"It's part of hockey. There's a winner and a loser, but nobody can take away the memories that we made this season," Morin, the senior captain, said. "I couldn't be more thankful for the people around me. ... The parents, my teammates, the coaches and especially the fans that come to all the games. It's been a special run."
Entering the state semifinal, Auburn had yet to trail by two goals in any postseason game so far. Sweet Home, with its two-goal statement early in the third period, piled on more than the Maroons could overcome.
For the fourth time in five postseason games Auburn fell behind 1-0 in the first period, but goals from Malandruccolo and Szakalski in the second period gave the Maroons a 2-1 lead.
Auburn appeared primed to enter the final period in front, but Sweet Home stepped on those plans with a tally with 45 seconds remaining in the second to tie the score 2-2.
"We're still confident at that point," Lowe said. "Sure, you don't want to give up a goal in the last minute of a period. ... That probably helped their locker room more than it hurt our locker room. We weren't down because we've played so well in the third periods, outscoring our opponents in the third periods the last several games. We thought we had the third period, but their system tonight obviously worked."
Down 4-2 with 6:17 left, a pass from Malandruccolo to Williams beat Sweet Home goalie Michael Lisman to trim the deficit to a goal. The Maroons failed to obtain the required tying goal, however, as the Panthers countered with their fifth of the night 1:15 later.
Behind 5-3 in the waning minutes, Auburn earned a 5-on-3 power play and scored once during the two-man advantage, but an empty-netter by Sweet Home with nine seconds remaining ended the Maroons season on the brink of the state final.
"It's like, 'What the heck just happened?" Morin said. "We thought we had them, we thought it was our game. We had the momentum for most of the game and it just didn't work out for us."
While the Maroons totaled four goals, there were still some opportunities left on the table. With Auburn controlling play through the first two periods, Lisman kept his Sweet Home unit in the game despite a barrage of Maroons shots.
"We were just looking for shots," Morin said. "If we get a ton of volume on him we know that some are going to fall. Just getting pucks and traffic to the net, we liked our chances. We came up short."
While Auburn fell short of its goal to win a state title, the Maroons still emerge from the season with a sectional title and regional championship.
"It was a hell of a ride," Lowe said. "I just feel bad that it didn't last another day."