SalemNews.com, Salem, MA

February 19, 2014

The Blue Line Report: Desperation mode in Danvers: Falcons, Eagles both fighting for their playoff lives

The Blue Line Report
Phil Stacey

---- — It’s a town that can match up with any other on the North Shore in terms of high school hockey history.

Between Danvers High School and St. John’s Prep, Danvers is blessed to have a pair of hockey programs with traditions as rich as Bill Gates. The Falcons have won a pair of Division 2 state championships (1994 and 2001) and have qualified for postseason play 24 times in the last 25 years, while the Eagles have been to the playoffs 12 straight seasons (nine times as a Super 8 participant) and also have two state crowns (1979 and 1985).

The last time these two storied squads both missed the state tournament? You’ve got to go all the way back to 1987 — the year Tim Tebow, Lionel Messi and Maria Sharapova were born.

But unless all the cards fall in their favor over the next three days, that’s exactly what could transpire by Friday evening.

Currently sporting a 8-9-1 record for tournament purposes, Danvers High will hit the ice at the Graf Rink in Newburyport this afternoon knowing it must produce two wins, or one win and a tie, in its final two games to earn the requisite 20 points needed for postseason inclusion. (Their overall record is 8-10-1, but one of the losses was an ‘exclusion’ game that doesn’t count against their MIAA record — ironically, played against St. John’s Prep).

The Falcons take on 7-10-2 North Andover (which just saw its own postseason chances dashed Monday) at 1 p.m. today in the opening round of the Newburyport Bank Classic’s Fournier Division. Win and they’ll get Saugus (which beat Lincoln-Sudbury via forfeit) in the tournament final Friday night; lose today and they’ll take on Lincoln-Sudbury (12-2-4) in Friday’s consolation game.

It’s important to note, however, that because this is a regular season tournament, shootouts can be used to determine a winner if the game is tied after 45 minutes. But because the MIAA does not recognize regular season shootouts (and nor should they), the contest would officially be considered a tie.

This is critical for Danvers, which could ‘lose’ today’s game in a shootout, but still get a much needed point. They’d then have to defeat Saugus in regulation to finish 9-9-2 and earn 20 points for the season. Same holds true if they were to defeat North Andover today, but lose in a shootout to Lincoln-Sudbury Friday.

Captains Matt Flynn, Jay Calcagno and center Kevin Hodgkins have accounted for 19 of the Falcons’ 41 goals; skating together on the top line, they’ll need to keep producing offensively as they have of late (scoring 8 of the team’s last 10 goals and 9 of their last dozen). Seniors Ryan Cassidy and Alec Littlefield, in addition to junior Stephen Ganley, will feel the ice is their second home with all the minutes they’ll be getting tonight, while workhorse Alex Taylor, a junior who has tended goal for all but four of team’s 855 minutes this season, must come up with some big-time performances.

Travelling from the Danvers High campus on Cabot Road across town to the sprawling expanse that is St. John’s Prep on Spring Street, things are a bit more cut and dried for the Eagles. With a 7-9-2 record, the Prep must win its final two games.

Friday’s game shouldn’t be a problem; they play at Wakefield (1-16-2), a team that hasn’t tasted victory since the day after Christmas when it beat Saugus, 3-0. Game No. 19, however, will be much more problematic for St. John’s as it hosts Winchester (10-4-5) tonight at the Ristuccia Arena in Wilmington at 8 p.m.

There are similar opponents between the Eagles and Sachems; both have beaten Woburn and been defeated by Malden Catholic and Central Catholic. One foe that they split: St. John’s went on the road and knocked off Hingham in the second game of the season, while Winchester lost at home to the Harbormen in early January.

St. John’s Prep plays in a much better league (Catholic Conference vs. Middlesex), has an infinitely more difficult schedule and is 7-2-1 against non-league foes this winter. But none of that means much if they can’t put together a complete 45-minute effort tonight from the goal on out and get the two points they so desperately need.

Like their crosstown brethen, St. John’s has been getting the bulk of its scoring of late from the top line of captains Jimmy Currier of Middleton and Mark Etherington from Danvers, as well as junior wing Nick Latham of Salem. Latham has had instant chemistry since being placed with his two older teammates; he has scored in four straight games with five goals, including a pair of game-winners.

While the goal has been problematic for the Eagles at times in 2013-14, they’ll almost certainly go back with the most consistent of their keepers, freshman Zach Laramie, between the pipes tonight.

And if somehow the Eagles do get the four points they need over their final two regular season games, have they done enough to earn a Super 8 berth as a play-in team? Depends on who you ask. Strength of schedule, the fact that they’re a regular participant in the state’s elite hockey tournament and reputation alone says they should. But the Eagles went 0-7-1 in league play and don’t have any ‘signature’ wins, per se, that the tournament committee looks for. There’s also little doubt that should St. John’s qualify for the postseason but aren’t picked for the Super 8, they certainly could win the Division 1 state title.

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While on the topic of the Super 8, that brings us to Beverly.

The Panthers (18-0-1) can complete the school’s second-ever unbeaten regular season with a win tonight at 7-9-3 Weymouth. Should they do so, they’d join the 1969-70 squad (13-0-1) in BHS hockey history.

Should an unbeaten regular season be enough to have Beverly, an excellent Division 2 club, playing with the state’s elite Division 1 clubs?

From this corner of the rink, no.

This is absolutely no knock on what the Panthers done so far this season. It’s more about what they could do in the state playoffs as a Division 2 entry.

Could the Orange-and-Black win the Division 2 state championship, which would be a first in program history? Without question, yes.

Could they win the Super 8 championship? Barring a series of events that would rival the Miracle On Ice 34 years ago, no.

Beverly can certainly hold its own against Division 1 teams in the Commonwealth; it has beaten five already this winter and will make it six if they can knock off Weymouth tonight. But there’s an enormous difference between playing teams like Wakefield, Westford Academy and Weymouth and the true elites of Malden Catholic, B.C. High and Springfield Cathedral.

For argument’s sake, let’s say Beverly does earn a Super 8 invite as a play-in team. With their record, they’d be the No. 7 seed and have to face the No. 10 seed in a one-game playoff next Monday. That opponent could be anyone from Arlington Catholic to Winchester to St. John’s Prep — no easy task.

If the Panthers won that play-in game, they’d advance to the Super 8 — and be matched up in a best 2-of-3 quarterfinal series against the No. 2 seed (again, likely MC, BC High or Springfield Cathedral). Who’d want that after the wonderful regular season they’ve had? And if they were to fall in the play-in game, thus dropping back into the Division 2 North bracket, what would their first loss of the season do to the team’s psyche?

The Panther players seem to realize where they best fit in the posteason.

”The Super 8 would be nice, but our main goal is the Division 2 state crown,” winger Jesse MacLaughlin said. “We want to bring the Division 2 ‘chip to Beverly.”

Captain Connor Irving, Beverly High’s all-time leading scorer with 186 points (and counting), agreed with his linemate.

”I know and have played with a lot of those guys before; Siff (Tyler Sifferlin), Ara (Nazarian, both of Malden Catholic), all the St. John’s Prep guys. It’d be an honor to be chosen (for the Super 8) and really cool to play against them,” Irving said. “But honestly, I think we’re better suited for Division 2.”

The reality is that Beverly has lost its first playoff game in each of the past two seasons, so there is plenty for them to prove at the Division 2 level. Then there’s the fact that only three Division 2 schools have ever been invited to the Super 8 party, and none since 1996, when Tewksbury got wiped out in two straight games.

Being a Division 2 playoff participant means the Panthers not only would have a chance to capture their first state title, but also go unbeaten while doing it. Who wouldn’t want that?

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Assuming Beverly will be in Division 2 North, they’ll be the favorites in a terrific bracket that will also include top teams like Lincoln-Sudbury, Winthrop, Tewksbury, North Reading and Marblehead.

But don’t sleep on Masconomet. At 12-4-2, the Chieftains play the type of defense-first, quick-transition hockey that can cause big problems for their tournament foes. They’ve also got someone who has made himself into one of the area’s best goaltenders this season in senior Mitch Nekoroski (12 wins, 1.57 GAA, .917 save percentage).

Defensemen like captains Tyler Costello and Jake Jesi, fellow seniors Jeff Panella and Mike Jesi, along with junior Jake Giacchino and sophomore Nick Pease, have teamed with Nekoroski to allow just 31 goals in 18 games. The offense has doubled that output (62 goals) thanks to guys like senior Joe Griffin (23 points), junior Mike Castro (22) and senior Jake Esposito (13), among a multitude of others.

With a staggering 15 seniors on the roster, the time to win for Masconomet is now. No matter how the state tournament bracket shakes out, this is a squad that nobody will relish drawing.

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