SalemNews.com, Salem, MA

February 5, 2014

The Blue Line Report: Witches sweeping in on a coveted playoff berth

Blue Line Report
Phil Stacey

---- — If you had the Salem High hockey team just four points away from a playoff berth will seven games still remaining in the regular season, well then you ...

Ah, who are we kidding? Nobody had the Witches in the position they currently find themselves in.

With a 7-5-2 record heading into tomorrow’s home game vs. Lowell, Salem can draw closer to something they haven’t achieved in seven years: earn a hockey postseason bid.

”They’re on a mission and playing so well lately,” second-year head coach Ted Hanley said of his Witches, who have seven regular season games remaining. “I’m really, really proud of them.”

Salem has won three straight and is 4-1-1 in its last six games, having also picked up another two points when Revere was forced to forfeit its first 10 games (including a season opening win over the Witches). In summary, they picked up 11 points in just 17 days.

Since switching the lines up prior to a 5-3 win over Swampscott last week, Salem has racked up 18 goals. Freshman Mike Gillis had a game-winning goal against O’Bryant and followed that up with two goals and two assists in a shutout win over East Boston; he’s skating first line right wing with offensive gifted senior Danny Heck (6 goals, 7 assists) at center and another offensive talent, junior left wing Sam Petri (5-6-11).

Junior Jake Quarles, who recently scored in back-to-back contests, is playing left wing on the second line with freshman center Cam Twomey (2-3-5) and senior captain Matt Jalbert (3-6-9) on the right side. Jalbert also plays the point on Salem’s power play. Junior Killian Fitzpatrick has been the pivot on an aggressive checking unit that includes Derek Zwiercan (a sneaky-good scorer at 4-4-8) at right wing and fellow junior Adam Ngo on the left side.

Because they skate up to six defensemen (a rarity in Division 3 high school hockey), the Witches have been wearing opponents down with a combination of smart, physical play and their depth. Senior Jackson Jennings (”he’s been unbelievable” said Hanley), junior Eli Spector and sophomores Eamon Williamson and Ishmael Telemaco make up the top four; together, they’ve combined for seven goals and eight assists to go along with minute-munching duties in all situations. Junior Sam Bresnahan (3 assists) and freshman Nathan Rumson provide depth on the back end.

The glue, however, is senior Brett Harring in goal. A four-year starter who missed time earlier this season because of injuries, he’s come back and played some of the best hockey of his high school career with a 4-2-1 mark, a 2.59 goals-against average and a sensational .928 save percentage. He also had his second career shutout in the above-mentioned 5-0 blanking of East Boston last Saturday night.

”Our kids are really pumped,” Hanley said. “A lot of these kids weren’t used to winning beforehand,” — the Witches were 4-30-1 in the two seasons before Hanley came on for the 2012-13 season, “but now that they’re doing it they really like that feeling. It’s been terrific to see.”

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Masconomet, which qualified for the playoffs Monday for the first time in three years after a 9-1 rout of Pentucket, has been giving out a ‘Player of the Game’ jacket after victories this season. Tyler Costello got it two games ago in a shutout of Lynnfield, and backup goalie Jon Anderson earned the honors after his team hammered the Sachems.

There’s a nice twist to the jacket, too: every player that earns it has to have a patch sewn onto it (presumably by their moms) before they pass it on. “There are some pretty random patches on there,” mused head coach Andrew Jackson. The jacket itself is an all-black classic wool with leather sleeves and a red ‘M’ on the breast.

That classic jacket has been getting passed around frequently; the red-hot Chieftains (9-3-2) have won three in a row and six of their last seven contests. In their last eight games they’ve surrendered a grand total of eight goals and have limited their opponents to scant few shots; team defense has outstanding in front of senior goaltender Mitch Nekoroski (8-2-2 with a sterling 1.59 goals-against average), who is becoming a stalwart between the pipes. All told, they’ve given up just 25 goals in 14 games.

Scoring (48 goals) hasn’t been overly plentiful, but it’s been a case of not how many goals Masconomet scores but the timeliness of those goals. Costello (2 goals, 3 assists vs. Pentucket) has 14 points; an intelligent player, he moved from forward to defense as Joe Griffin (18 points) took his game from the back end to the forward corps. Junior Mike Castro (a team-leading 9 goals and 16 points) is emerging as a clutch scorer, too.

The Cape Ann League title is also within Masconomet’s grasp; at 7-1-2 (16 points), they current sit a point back of front-running North Reading (8-1-1) and both squads still have four league matchups remaining.

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Now that they’ve officially been eliminated from playoff contention, what does head coach Mark Leonard want to see out of his Peabody Tanners down the season’s homestretch?

”Honestly, I’d like to see them keep playing the way they have been,” said Leonard. “We’ve been playing pretty well, but have had no luck at all. We’re better than our record.”

There’s merit to Leonard’s words. The Tanners (4-10-2) have given up a shade over two goals a game over their last half-dozen contests and, quite honestly, the puck hasn’t bounced their way much, if at all, over the last two months. Lack of offensive finish, third period collapses, five empty net goals allowed ... they’ve all contributed to the team’s woes.

Marshfield, Andover, Beverly (in the Carlin Cup, where Peabody is the defending champions) are left on Peabody’s docket. Continued hot streaks up front from captains Derek DeMild (4 goals in his last two games) and Andrew ‘Biscuits’ Bisconti (goals in back-to-back contests) can only help.

”I hope our seniors can finish strong and our young guys continue to get the experience they’ll need for next season,” said Leonard.

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The odds aren’t in St. John’s Prep’s favor as far as qualifying for state tournament play. The Eagles are 5-8-1 and need nine of a possible 12 points in their last six games, and their next five foes, beginning tomorrow against Austin Prep in Wilmington (8 p.m.), are a combined 46-14-16 this winter.

But it’s not as dire a situation as you might think.

St. John’s Prep didn’t win a game in the Catholic Conference (0-7-1), but it has gone 5-1 in their non-league tilts so far; the remainder of its schedule are against non-league foes. Head coach Kristian Hanson has coached the Eagles to six tournament berths in his six seasons; including his previous 7-year stint at Salem High (which had never been to the playoffs prior to his arrival there), his teams have earned postseason invitations in 11 of his 13 seasons behind the bench.

The Eagles have also made the tournament for a school record 12 straight seasons and obviously want to keep that going.

A couple of things would go a long ways towards going on a late-season run that they desperately need. For starters, the power play has to start clicking; the Eagles have just six man-up goals this winter. Secondary scoring is also needed; the first line of captains Jimmy Currier and Mark Etherington with sophomore right wing Kyle Lynch have 21 of the Prep’s 41 goals and 55 of their 107 total points, and they could use some support.

Lastly, someone needs to get hot in goal, be it freshman Zach Laramie or senior Brian Conry. If the Eagles are to make a playoff push, goaltending will need to play a huge role.

Can they do it? It’s not impossible, but it is going to take a lot of work.

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Conry became the first North Shore goaltender to earn a point this season when he had an assist in the Prep’s recent 3-2 loss at Catholic Memorial. Conry got ahold of the puck and head-manned it up ice to Currier, who in turn dished the disc off to Etherington for a first period goal.

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Speaking of goaltenders, Swampscott freshman Zach Turner has probably earned himself a few more starts the rest of the way. After sitting on the pine for his team’s 15 games, he came in relief against Salem in Game No. 16 and turned aside all seven shots he saw in the third period. Earning his first career start three days later against Rockport, he was stellar in turning aside 21 shots in a 4-1 Big Blue victory.

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When you talk about local players who have been consistent from the preseason to the present, the name Stephen Ganley should be on the tip of your tongue.

The junior defenseman from Danvers has been an extremely pleasant surprise this season, not only for his playmaking abilities (a team-leading 8 assists and tied for second in scoring with 11 points), but also for his skill set and on-ice smarts no matter which of the three zones he’s in.

”He works hard for everything he gets out there,” Danvers head coach Kevin Brown said of Ganley. “Physically, with his frame, he doesn’t get pushed around. He’s a strong guy and he’s able to step up to the blue line and be physical when he has to be.”

Perhaps Ganley’s most positive asset is that he’s aware of what he can and can’t do. He doesn’t try for the home run pass or try to hammer every opposing forward through the boards. Rather, he picks his spots, makes good decisions and doesn’t waste unnecessary movement.

”Stephen also moves the puck out of our end cleanly. His clears are good; he’s able to use his strength that way. And he’s got a nice shot from the point; it’s very heavy and it reaches the goalie quickly. He’s got a good snapshot that’s pretty effective on the power play.”

Ganley also plays upwards of 30-35 minutes a night, usually paired up with senior Ryan Cassidy.

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This means absolutely nothing, but ...

Did you know that seven of the 10 head coaches in our coverage area have a last name that ends with an ‘n’? Think about it: Bob Gilligan (Beverly), Kevin Brown (Danvers), Bob Jackson (Marblehead), Gino Khachadourian (Pingree), Kristian Hanson (St. John’s Prep), Andrew Jackson (Masconomet) and Dan Lynch (Bishop Fenwick) all meet that requirement.

Two others — Peabody’s Mark Leonard and Salem’s Ted Hanley — have n’s in their last names; of our 10 bench bosses, only Swampscott’s Gino Faia doesn’t.

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