SalemNews.com, Salem, MA

February 12, 2014

The Blue Line Report: Playoff performance will ultimately determine Panthers' legacy

By Phil Stacey
Sports editor

---- — The Blue Line Report

Phil Stacey

With three games remaining in the regular season, it’s about time we put this Beverly High hockey season into some sort of historical perspective.

The Panthers (16-0-1) take the state’s lone unbeaten record on the road tonight, where they’ll face their fifth Division 1 opponent this winter in Mansfield (9-3-2) at the Foxboro Sports Center. They’ll then play at Peabody (4-11-2) Monday afternoon in the annual Carlin Cup, then wrap things up at against another Division 1 foe, Weymouth (6-9-3), next Wednesday.

If Beverly can avoid losing those three games, they’ll have completed the greatest regular season in school history; only one other Orange-and-Black hockey squad finished the regular season unbeaten, with the 1969-70 bladesmen going 13-0-1. If Beverly can win each of these three remaining contests, they’ll tie the 1971-72 team (which won 19 straight after a season opening loss) for most victories in one regular season.

Over the past three winters Beverly has gone a combined 48-8-3, including playoffs; that winning percentage of .839 is the best mark in school history, besting the three years from 1970-72 that went 50-10-3 overall (.817). The seniors on the current BHS team also hold the best four-year record in school history at 64-14-4 (.805) and have gone 38-6 in Northeastern Conference competition during that time (with only two losses the last three seasons).

This season has gone so well that Beverly became the first area team other than St. John’s Prep to earn consideration for the Super 8 tournament, no small feat to even be considered as a Division 2 entry. (The Panthers likely won’t be included in the final draw, but in this case it’s most definitely the thought that counts).

For the first time in 24 years, the Panthers have captured back-to-back Northeastern Conference hockey titles. The 1989 and 1990 BHS editions would, had the format existed at the time, likely have been Super 8 participants.

Beverly has not lost a game at Salem State’s Rockett Arena (its home rink) in more than two years; Winthrop blanked the Panthers 2-0 back on Jan. 4, 2012 — that’s 770 days ago. They’ve allowed 10 goals in three games against Marblehead and 12 goals combined in their other 14 contests. They’ve outscored teams 21-7 in the first period, a whopping 34-8 in the middle stanza and 24-7 in the third and final frame.

Six players have scored in double-digit points for the Orange-and-Black, and a half-dozen others have between 7 and 9 points. In all, 18 of the 19 skaters on the varsity roster have at least one point, with 16 of those scoring at least one goal.

They have plenty of studs: senior captain Connor Irving (15-24-39), the North Shore’s leading scorer and recently crowned all-time point leader in BHS hockey annals (180 points and counting); senior Graham Doherty (16-12-28), who’d be a first line force on any other team but centers an extremely potent second line here; junior Nick Albano (5-26-31), who is believed to be the state’s leading scorer among defensemen; and goaltender Timmy Birarelli, a junior whose numbers (14-0-1, 1.37 goals-against average, .919 save percentage, 4 shutouts) are among the best in school history.

Irving or Birarelli will be named Most Valuable Player in the NEC when the vote is held next Monday; for Irving, it’d be his second honor in three seasons; a nod to Birarelli would be his first.

But the core of this hockey team is made up of role players, grinders, muckers and unsung heroes who know what their job is and how to get it done to best benefit the Panthers. Captain Matt Hamor, Jack Morency and Sean Munzing are all four-year starters on defense who can play in any situation adroitly; combined, they’ve also added to the offense with three goals and 20 assists. Backup netminder Bryce Mitchell is ready when called upon; he’s won both of his starts (with a shutout to boot) and has stopped 42 of 45 shots that’ve come his way.

Other forwards, such as seniors J.J. Bachini (14 points), Kevin Lally (12), Jake Straw (10) and Ryan Santo (7); juniors Jesse MacLaughlin (8), Brenden Boyle (5) and Clinton Cabral (3); and sophomores Ross Wahl (9), Hunter Spencer (4) and Tyler Cloutman (2) provide scoring balance while combining to kill penalties, block shots, win battles in the neutral zone and, most of all, are committed to team defense.

So what does this all mean?

Well, much like our favorite pro football team down in Foxboro, it’s gotten to a point for Beverly where the regular season doesn’t mean that much. It’s all about how they fare in the playoffs.

Nobody associated with the program needs to be reminded of highly successful regular seasons the past two years ended abruptly by first round playoff upsets. Brushed aside but never completely forgotten, the Panthers realize in order to be considered one of the all-time greats (or possibly, the greatest ever), they need to produce in the postseason.

The aforementioned 1971-72 team is generally regarded as Beverly’s best. Billy “Squeak” Gilligan, who went on to a fine pro career as a player and coach, won North Shore Hockey League MVP honors after scoring 43 goals and 77 points, tops in the state (and beating out some guy named Mike Eruzione of Winthrop for NSHL bragging rights). His brother, defenseman Bob Gilligan — yes, Beverly’s current head coach — was an all-league stalwart who could pile up the points while logging 30-plus minutes of ice time; goalie Jeff Goodchild was among the best in Massachusetts and won up earning All-Tournament honors for his playoff performances. Roger LeBlanc and Billy LeClerc, combined with Squeak Gilligan up front to put up absurd 85-93-178 totals in the regular season, best in school history by a wide margin.

Playing as a Division 1 team (they did so until 1993), this Beverly team sealed its legacy in the state playoffs. In a seven-overtime thriller (yes, 7 overtimes) that took two days to finish, LeBlanc’s goal past future Bruins assistant coach Cap Raeder finally knocked off Needham, 3-1. The next game in the quarterfinals (at the old Boston Garden), the Panthers needed another three OTs before Kevin Huggett’s snipe toppled Archbishop Williams, 5-4. Back again at the Garden in the state semifinals, the Orange-and-Black went toe-to-toe with mighty Arlington before falling, 3-2. Billy Gilligan would finish with a school record 84 points as the Panthers’ record-breaking season ended at 21-2 overall.

Now that’s a team rich in history and with a legacy that can’t be questioned.

Do these Panthers have the same — or better — story to ultimately tell?

Whether or not they finish unbeaten in the regular season isn’t important; sure, it’d be nice, but it ultimately doesn’t decide state championships.

How they fare in the playoffs will.

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Can’t remember the last time — if ever — a freshman defenseman potted three goals in one game, but that’s exactly what Bishop Fenwick’s Greg McGunigle did over the weekend. The Melrose resident had all three of Fenwick’s goals in a loss to Lowell Catholic, scoring once in the first period and twice more in the middle stanza.

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Speaking of hat tricks, this might be the first year since Moses wore short pants that no local skater will have multiple 3-goal games during the regular season. All told, 15 players have turned the trick this winter (Derek DeMild and Reed Foster of Peabody; Danny Heck, Tarik Shahin and Ben Kippen of Salem; Matt Flynn of Danvers; Graham Doherty and Connor Irving of Beverly; Mike Castro of Masconomet; Tom Koopman and Erik Powers of Marblehead; Ryan Cresta, Ryan Donnelly and Mike Johnson of Swamspcott; and McGunigle), but nobody has done so more than once.

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Bet you didn’t know that Marblehead has outscored its seven non-NEC North foes by a ridiculous 46-3 margin. They still have three more such contests: Saturday at Nantucket (a team they’ve already hammered, 10-0), Monday against Amesbury in the first round of the Newburyport Bank Tournament; then either Bishop Fenwick (whom they’ve beaten this season, 3-0) or Masconomet in the tournament consolation or championship game two nights later.

Technically, Marblehead is 8-1 in its non-league games; they defeated Gloucester and lost to Beverly in the Cape Ann Savings Bank Tournament, both of which were consdered out of conference tilts.

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Tom Koopman became the 15th player in Marblehead hockey history to score 100 career points with a goal last Saturday night vs. Swampscott. He joins such Header luminaries as Don ‘Toot’ Cahoon (174 career points), Tom Colby (128), Kyle Reny (117), Trevor Price (115), Phil Legro (112), former teammate Ryan Dempsey (110), Rick Ledbury (108), Scott Garfield (105), his head coach, Bob Jackson (104), Chris McLeod (104), Todd Clifford (101) and Ryan Fader (101).

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Danvers, which hosts Marblehead tonight on Senior Night at Salem State (5 p.m.), will be playing an actual game for the first time in 11 days. The Falcons (7-8-1) used their time off to not only get some much-needed practice in, but to also devote time to specialized parts of the game they don’t always get to work on such as their power play, penalty killing, breakouts and various forechecks.

”It’s been nice to work on some things we don’t normally have a lot of time for,” said head coach Kevin Brown. “I’m hoping we can work off the positives we’ve shown during practices into (tonight’s) game.”

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Speaking of Danvers, Falcons defenseman Erik D’Orlando will be tickling the ivories this Sunday at The Maplestreet Tavern in Danvers from 7-10 p.m. His band members will also come up and perform with him. The Maplestreet Tavern will donate 10 percent of all food purchases from now until Sunday to the Danvers Hockey Boosters, as well as 10 percent of all beer and wine sales the night of the event.

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Staring at a 5-8-1 record and needing nine points in its last six games to earn a postseason bid for the 13th straight year, St. John’s Prep looked to be on the outside looking in a week ago. But back-to-back victories over potential Super 8 teams in Austin Prep (2-0) and Arlington Catholic (3-2) have the Eagles, well, soaring heading into another big stretch in the coming days: home contests vs. St. John’s of Shrewsbury (9-4-4) tonight and Springfield Cathedral (12-2-4) Saturday, both at home, followed by another home date Monday against Winchester (9-3-5).

”We’ve got to stick with the same thing we’ve said all season: one game at a time, one shift at a time,” said head coach Kristian Hanson. “No way we can afford to be looking ahead. The next game is our biggest; that should be our only focus.”

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We already knew that Andrew ‘Biscuits’ Bisconti was a great guy. But since actions speak louder than words, you can be the judge.

Bisconti, a forward who serves as one of Peabody’s senior captains, stopped by Mrs. Kinnaly’s third grade class last week to reach to children at the Capt. Samuel Brown Elementary School in Peabody. A former Brown School student, Bisconti read his favorite book about twisted tales to the boys and girls, and also spoke with them from the heart about the importance of being a good citizen, getting good grades, giving back to the community and how hard work helps realize your dreams.

Bisconti is just the latest example of the Peabody hockey captains going out to the elementary schools; the other Tanner captains, Derek DeMild, Mike Vadala and Guiseppe Zarro, have been out to Mrs. Davies’ first grade class and Mrs. Cokorogianis’ fourth grade students at the Brown School.

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The Blue Line Report, a column on North Shore high school hockey, appears each Wednesday during the winter sports season in The Salem News. Contact sports editor Phil Stacey at pstacey@salemnews.com or 978-338-2650, and follow him on Twitter @PhilStacey_SN.