By Matt Williams
---- — WINTHROP — Senior winger Ryan Santo is developing a flair for the dramatic for the Beverly High hockey team.
After some theatrics of a different sort dissipated Saturday night at Larsen Rink, Santo stepped up with his second game-winning goal in as many games to deliver the Panthers a 3-1 victory over host Winthrop.
Unbeaten Beverly (15-0-1) clinched its second straight Northeastern Conference North title in a contest marked by a game disqualification for fighting on each side and two other major penalties.
Third period goals by Santo and Jake Straw, plus a successful 4-minute penalty kill at the end of the game, were the difference as the Panthers handed second-place Winthrop (11-5) its first home loss.
The victory gave Beverly back-to-back NEC titles for the first time since 1989-90 and became the first program to win two straight NEC North titles since the league split in 2005.
“The first goal is to win the conference. Of course, we want to see what we can do in the (state) tournament, but its a huge thing for these kids to win the league,” said Beverly head coach Bob Gilligan. “To beat Winthrop in their own rink is a huge win for us, a character win.”
Tempers boiled over midway through the second period. Some pushing and shoving between players took place after a stoppage behind the Winthrop net, which led to all 10 skaters that were on the ice and Vikings’ goalie Ray Feeley exchanging contact in a heated scrum. The referees separated the players and issued fighting disqualifications to Beverly’s Jack Morency and Winthrop’s Zach Deeb, a 4-minute major penalty to Feeley and minor roughing infractions to the rest of the skaters involved. The DQs carry automatic 2-game suspensions under state rules.
“It is what it is. The kids were getting into it, and it seemed the referees made the right calls,” said Gilligan. “It’s a rivalry game. We’re on a roll, Winthrop’s been on a roll and the emotions get the best of the some of the kids.”
Because the penalty on Feeley was a major, the goalie had to go to the penalty box and Winthrop’s Tommy DiBenedetto came on to play net. He stopped all five shots Beverly threw at him on the ensuing power play and Feeley (20 total saves) returned to the cage after his penalty time expired.
The score was tied 1-1 when the fracas occurred and it remained that way through two periods. Just 1:28 into the third stanza, Feeley came out of his crease to stop Beverly captain Connor Irving’s bid, but he couldn’t fully control the puck. Santo jammed it free and into the net for the winning goal.
Late in the third, Irving was issued a 4-minute major for slashing with just 4:13 to play. Beverly’s penalty killers — primarily Santo, Jesse McLaughlin, Straw, Kevin Lally, Sean Munzing, Matt Hamor and Nick Albano — did the job to hold Winthrop off. Junior netminder Tim Birarelli stopped Winthrop’s Chris Page on the side of the cage (”That thing looked in. He held the fort,” Gilligan said) and finished with 16 saves.
“With the minutes some of the kids played (because of penalties), those kills were good team efforts,” Gilligan said. “We had to juggle things a bit. At times we were down to just two defensemen.”
Straw broke in and scored a shorthanded goal with just 34 seconds left to ice the win for Beverly, which is 9-0 in NEC games this winter and a sterling 39-9-1 in conference play over the last four years.
After a tightly-checked but relatively disciplined scoreless first, Beverly junior Brendan Boyle opened the scoring early in the second. He redirected Morency’s shot from the point to put his team ahead, 1-0, just 39 seconds into the middle frame. Winthrop tied it when Page scored a power play goal 1:49 later.