By Phil Stacey
---- — One way or another, Beverly High School hockey history is going to be made tonight.
Either the Panthers will advance to the Division 2 state championship game for the first time in program history, or the team’s 10 seniors will end their careers one game short of their desired location.
On a season-long mission to claim the program’s first state title, top-seeded Beverly (20-1-1) will skate against No. 3 seed Tewksbury (17-3-2) at the Tsongas Center in Lowell (6 p.m.) for the Division 2 North crown. The winner advances to TD Garden in Boston Sunday, where they’ll meet Division 2 South champion Medfield.
“They play similar to us and have a really sound system. And we know they’re going to come out after us hard,” Beverly head coach Bobby Gilligan said about Tewksbury. “They’re well coached (former Redmen star Derek Doherty is the team’s head coach) and have had a lot of success in the playoffs. They got stronger as that (quarterfinal win over) Marblehead went on and really shut them down.
“We’re going to have to be really smart, be on our toes and play aggressively, but without taking (foolish) penalties. We have to beat them to the puck and do those little things that are so huge in tournament games.”
No Beverly High hockey team has ever won three postseason games in one season. Seven different BHS editions have done so twice (1967-70-72-77-78-2005-2011), and this year’s squad has no interest in being the eighth.
Additionally, this is the third time that the Panther icemen have been one game away from playing for a state title. The 1972 team lost to Arlington in the Division 1 state semifinals at the old Boston Garden, 3-2; five years, later, the 1977 squad fell in the same round at the same venue to mighty Matignon, 10-2.
“I think I played that whole (Arlington) game,” joked Gilligan, a senior defenseman on that ‘72 squad. “My brother Billy had both of our goals, but we couldn’t get the equalizer.”
Plethora of talent
With 97 goals scored and speed galore, the Panthers are more than happy to get into a track meet with teams offensively. But they also relish the physical side of the game and can mix it up in all three zones if that’s what their opponents desire. Dirty goals, pretty snipes, clutch third period goals — the Panthers have gotten them all this winter.
At 189 points and counting, captain Connor Irving is the program’s all-time leading scorer, and leads his team with 48 this winter, including a career-best 19 goals. Fellow senior center Graham Doherty (17-14-31) can also put the puck away.
J.J. Bachini (5-10-15), Kevin Lally (4-11-15), Jake Straw (9-6-15), Jesse MacLaughlin (8-4-12), Ryan Santo (5-5-10), Teddy Leathersich (4-6-10), Ross Wahl (4-5-9) and Brenden Boyle (5-1-6) are each capable of finding the scoresheet.
When Lally scored in an eventual 5-1 quarterfinal win over Lincoln-Sudbury last Monday, he became the 11th different Panther to record a game-winning goal in 2013-14.
Junior Tim Birarelli has given up just two goals on 37 shots in his team’s two playoff wins, adding to one of the best seasons by a Beverly High goaltender ever. In addition to going 18-1-1, he’s stopping 92.7 percent of the shots he’s faced and has a 1.28 goals-against average with five shutouts.
Beverly’s defense features three seniors who have played varsity minutes for four seasons in captains Sean Munzing and Matt Hamor and Jack Morency. Junior Nick Albano is his team’s second leading scorer with 40 points. The foursome have kept shots against to just a shade over 17 allowed per contest.
Only three times this winter has Birarelli been asked to make more than 18 saves in a game: 21 in a win at Westford Academy, 28 in a triumph over Marblehead and 26 in the Panthers’ only loss, 2-0 at Weymouth in their regular season finale.
More than a worthy challenger
Tewksbury is no stranger to success, both in the regular season and state tournament. The Redmen won the 2011 Division 2 state title (beating Beverly along the way) and have gone a combined 55-13-8 in the regular season over the past four years.
With just four seniors in its lineup, Tewksbury is getting it done thanks to the contributions of its many junior and sophomores. Among the seniors, captains Ross Budryk (6-16-22) and Jeff Giasullo (1-5-6) are blue line forces while assistant Jack Cash (13-13-26) is among the team’s top forwards.
Ryan Petti (19-27-46) is the team’s unquestioned scoring star; together with fellow juniors Ryan Meade (7-16-23) and Colin Quinn (10-14-24), they must be considered dangerous every time they fly into the offensive zone. Sophomore Dario Riparo (11-2-13) has also shown a penchant for finding the back of the net.
Along with Budryk and Giasullo, sophomore defensemen Brett Morris (6-9-15) and Mark Gorman (4-4-8), as well as junior Robert Cutone (0-4-4), stand guard in front of junior Kyle Paquette, whose numbers (1.29 GAA, .933 save pct., 28 goals allowed, 7 shutouts) are similar to Birarelli’s.
Much like the Northeastern Conference North champions, Tewksbury likes to cut the middle of the ice and keep things to the outside. They also employ a forecheck where the wingers come at you and the center stays up high.
The Redmen have scored slightly fewer goals (86) and allowed three more (30) than Beverly, but won’t give an inch when the puck is dropped tonight.
The two North finalists have three common foes: Marblehead, Methuen and Lincoln-Sudbury (the latter two both in the same Merrimack Valley/Dual County League Division 2 as Tewksbury). Beverly beat Marblehead three times, toppled Methuen 6-1 on the road and is coming off of a decisive playoff win over Lincoln-Sudbury; the Redmen lost (3-1) and tied (3-3) L-S during the regular season, swept two meetings with Metheun (2-0 and 3-2) and is coming off of a playoff triumph over Marblehead.
Both teams have had seven days off to prepare for tonight’s showdown and are no doubt ready to finally get going.
“The way our kids have been going, they’re capable of doing anything,” said Gilligan. “They’ve been around and are really out to prove something this year; I think that’ll be a bit of an edge for us. They’re pumped up and ready to go.”