---- — LOWELL — It’s been 13,518 days since a Beverly High hockey team played a game where the Boston Bruins call home.
Come Sunday, that interminable streak will come to an end — because the Garden City Boys are headed back to the Garden.
It was simply an awesome display of speed, power and defensive dominance at the Tsongas Center last night. The top-seeded Panthers, behind four goals and an assist from senior captain Connor Irving, dismantled Tewksbury, 9-1, to capture its first Division 2 North title.
“We’ve been aware for a long time now that we’ve had the skill set and ability to do this,” senior left wing Ryan Santo, after dishing out a career high four assists, said. “We just had to execute. Tonight ... this whole season, really ... we executed.”
The Panthers scored on nine of their 23 shots, including putting up a 5-spot in the middle stanza to turn an 3-1 contest into an 8-1 rout. Beverly didn’t allow a single shot on goaltender Tim Birarelli from 10:53 of the first period until 72 seconds had passed in the third period -- a stretch of 20 minutes and 19 seconds of shot-free hockey. The Panthers, for the third time in three postseason games, allowed their opponents to score first but never batted an eye, responding 58 seconds later and rolling from there.
Now, something the Panthers (21-1-1) have openly talked about for two seasons has finally come to fruition: they’ll play for the school’s first-ever state hockey championship Sunday at TD Garden in Boston against South champion Medfield (18-4-2).
Time and time again this winter, the Panthers have struck with a flurry of goals at key junctures of games to leave their opponents left wondering exactly what tornado just blew through the rink. Tewksbury learned that the hard way over the latter half of the first period as the Beverly Express rolled out goals by Jake Straw, MacLaughlin and Irving in under six minutes to take that two-goal lead into the break.
The Orange-and-Black’s top line of Irving with Santo and Jesse MacLaughlin on his wings accounted for five goals and seven assists against the Redmen. Normally one to dish the puck off -- he does have BHS records of 121 assists and 194 points for his career -- it was Irving’s night to catch fire with the puck on his blade. He scored once on the power play, one shorthanded and had two 5-on-5 tallies, including a backbreaker with 3.4 seconds left in the first period that gave the Panthers a 3-1 lead that seemed like 13-1.
That one play seemed to signify Beverly’s night: MacLaughlin threw a pass across the sheet to Santo, who batted it down out of the air with his stick and, in one motion, flung a pass up to Irving for a breakaway goal just three-and-a-half ticks before the horn sounded.
“Connor, he’s usually like an apple tree,” said MacLaughlin, a junior who is hands down the Panthers’ most loquacious and quotable player, said, using the modern day slang term for assists. “But tonight he was ripping those ginos, and me and Ryan were getting the apples. Everything was clicking for us.”
Then the Panthers put their foot all the way down on the accelerator in the second, dictating the period from puck drop to the intermission whistle. Considering the circumstances, it may well have been the most thoroughly dominant 15 minutes of hockey ever played by a Beverly High hockey squad.
“Right from the first shift of that second period, we started taking it to them,” said Irving. “We were skating well, cycling the puck. We knew the first goal of the second period would be huge.”
Everyone, it seemed, got in on the fun. Winger J.J. Bachini and defenseman Nick Albano both had a goal and two assists while Graham Doherty dished out a pair of helpers. Defensive defenseman Matt Hamor, a two-year senior captain, snapped home his second goal of the season by using a Tewksbury defenseman as a screen to rifle a shot home from inside the right circle. Another defenseman, captain Sean Munzing, played his usual you’re-not-getting-one-past-MY-goalie game, locking down any Redmen who came within his radius.
The Panthers’ third senior blueliner, Jack Morency, delivered three big bodychecks, including an ol’ fashioned hip check on the Redmen’s Mark Gorman along the half-wall in his own end. “Something extra for me to use,” Morency mused.
Backup goaltender Bryce Mitchell has made his teammates better all year by constantly challenging them in practice and was rewarded by playing the final 9:59, making three saves.
Ross Wahl, Clinton Cabral, Hunter Spencer, Tyler Cloutman, Sean Hanlon and Chris McKenna fit into the same category and got plenty of well-earned third period action.
Saturday afternoon, March 5, 1977. That’s the last time Beverly played at the old Boston Garden, falling to Matignon in the Division 1 state semifinals.
Sunday, they’ll make their long-awaited return, 37 years since their last visit. It’s a new building and a different division that they’re playing in, but I wouldn’t be surprised if half the city shows up on Causeway Street in Boston to see the Panthers chase that ever-elusive state hockey title.
“It’s awesome,” said Birarelli, flashing a big smile. “I’m just glad we can still go to practice (today) and know we have one more game left. I hope it’s a great one.”
Bring on Medfield.
Phil Stacey is the sports editor of The Salem News. Contact him at email@example.com or 978-338-2650, and follow him on Twitter @PhilStacey_SN.