By Matt Williams
---- — STONEHAM — Two years ago, the thought of playing deep into the third period of a state tournament hockey game wasn’t much more than a dream for the members of the Salem/Hamilton-Wenham co-op team.
Over that time, with a lot of grunt work and help from head coach Ted Hanley, the Witches made it a reality.
So while Salem ultimately fell, 2-0, to Dracut in the first round of the Division 3 North tournament at Stoneham Arena yesterday, the message afterwards wasn’t one of disappointment.
The Witches, who end the season 9-9-4, were proud to have made their first playoff appearance since 2006-07. Hanley was even more proud of the way his team played on the ice against a strong Dracut team that advanced to Sunday’s quarterfinals against Northeast.
“I didn’t want us to come in here happy to be in the tournament and playing poorly. We didn’t — We showed exactly how we could play,” said Hanley. “We were going to need a bounce or two to beat that team, that’s why they were the number seven seed and we were tenth.”
Salem spent long stretches of the first and second periods stuck in the offensive zone, but the possession by Dracut (12-7-2) wasn’t dominant or particularly threatening. Witches defensemen Eli Spector, Jackson Jennings, Ishmael Telemaco and Eamon Williamson did a good job tracking down loose pucks, but the Middies did an even better job preventing Salem from making clean breakouts.
The result was limited time on attack for the Witches and a 31-16 edge in shots on goal for Dracut.
“We wanted to try to shut down Dracut’s first line because each one of them had 25 points,” said Hanley. “We were hoping we could get Danny Heck’s line out there against Dracut’s second line and maybe pop in a couple.”
Heck, the team’s leading goal scorer and a senior from Hamilton, hit one off the crossbar with Salem behind 1-0 early in the second. Salem was limited to just three shots in the first and fell behind when Justin Lange’s high rebound beat goalie Brett Harring with only 14 seconds left in the first.
“Dracut is a good team. They were quick and they were strong on the puck,” said Hanley. “They had some guys who can really put it in the net and I thought we were a pretty good job holding them to two.”
The Witches were better in the second and third, with eight shots in the final period, and Harring made 29 saves in all to keep them in it. The senior, a staple in net for the Witches for several seasons, flashed both the glove and his toe-pad on several occasions.
“We’ve had nothing but praise for Brett, and how can you not? He’s so solid,” said Hanley. “He’s done a lot for us. He’ll be playing hockey somewhere next year.”
Dracut extended their lead to 2-0 after two Nick Hayward’s tough-angle shot hit the crossbar and bounce into the net with 4:38 to go in the second.
Salem had some strong pressure at times in the third. Junior Derek Dwiercan had a great scoring chance that Dracut goalie Patrick Carney denied, and freshman Mike Gillis tried to stuff a rebound by Carney (16 saves) on a late power play that somehow wouldn’t go.
The Witches lifted Harring for an extra attacker 1:05 to go and though they didn’t allow an empty net goal, they couldn’t pump one into the cage either.
“We had some nice chances and if we buried one or two maybe we could’ve done something,” said Hanley. “I’m really proud of the boys. They never gave up. Right down to the time when we pulled the goalie, we had a shot.”
Salem graduates seven seniors, including Harring, Mike Rosengren, Matt Jalbert and Spector (the four captains) as well as Heck, Killan Fitzpatrick and Jackson Jennings.
“I told the guys I wouldn’t want to coach any other team. These kids hustle, they listen, they’ll do anything you ask of them,” said Hanley. “I told the seniors they’re the ones who got us here, back where we should be.”
The Witches have plenty of promising skaters returning, including the second D-pairing as well as strong forwards like Sam Petri, Gillis and Zwiercan.
“Coming out of the locker room, I told them we’re going to be back,” Hanley said. “This is a start for us. It’s a great start. It’s a great place to push off from.”
Dracut 2, Salem 0
Division 3 North First Round
at Stoneham Arena
Salem: 0 0 0 — 0
Dracut: 1 1 0 — 2
First period: D, Justin Lange (Brian Smith), 14:46.
Second Period: D, Nick Hayward (Mat McKinnon), 10:22
Third Period: No scoring.
Saves: S, Brett Harring 29; D, Pat Carney 16
Records: S, 9-9-4; D, 12-7-2.