By Matt Williams
---- — Minutes played isn’t a popularly tracked statistic in high school hockey. That makes it easy to overlook just how often defensemen are on the ice.
A game lasts 45 minutes, and there are two defensemen on the ice at any given time. If a team plays four D-men, that’s about 22:30 for each guy every night.
Looking at the number brings to life just how much is asked of these skaters. For some teams, it’s a challenge due to speed, strength, plain old talent and fatigue.
For the Division 2 North champion Beverly High Panthers, however, their foursome on defense serves as a bedrock foundation as they chase the program’s first outright state championship (against Medfield at TD Garden in Boston Sunday at 7:45 p.m.).
The Panthers have two regular pairs: senior captain Matt Hamor alongside junior dynamo Nick Albano, and hard-hitting senior Jack Morency flanking steady senior captain Sean Munzing.
All four rearguards have contributed to the varsity since they were freshmen. They’ve essentially been working together as a foursome since Albano’s emergence as a ninth grader allowed the team to move Andrew Irving to forward in 2011-12.
In that time, they’ve learned each other’s strengths and weaknesses while perfecting the symbiotic relationship that develops between the best defensive partners.
“We love playing together. We compliment each other well,” said Hamor, a two-year captain. “Our approach is just to be the best defense we can be. We know we need to play from (junior goaltender) Timmy (Birarelli) on out and not to let anything by us.”
Statistically, it’s impossible to argue with the results. Beverly’s plus-78 goal differential (goals scored vs. goals allowed) is the best in Division 2 by a wide margin. It’s also third in the entire state behind Super 8 contender Springfield Cathedral (plus-95) and Division 3 club Shrewsbury (plus-94).
The fact that the Panthers and all-time leading scorer Connor Irving have amassed 106 goals of their own certainly helps that differential. On the strength of Birarelli and the defense, Beverly has allowed only 28 goals on the season, the second-lowest total statewide.
“It’s chemistry,” said Irving. “They’ve had the same pairs for a few years now and that brings out the best in them. They let us take more risks up front because they always have our backs.”
Albano is the second-highest scoring defenseman in that state with 43 points this year. He has a goal and seven assists in his team’s three postseason contests, assisting on all five goals in a 5-1 quarterfinal victory over Lincoln-Sudbury. “Teams almost have to watch him the way they watch Connor. Nick’s a serious threat,” said Birarelli.
In the offensive zone, Albano’s shot is dangerous from up high as evidenced by his eight goals. He has a team-high 35 assists, while Hamor has two goals (including 1 in his team’s 9-1 semifinal romp over Tewksbury) and seven assists. Munzing has eight helpers and Morency has two goals and seven assists.
“They have good chemistry and are all hard workers,” head coach Bob Gilligan said of his defensive foursome. “Especially on big ice, they can pass D-to-D wide really well. They set a physical tone and take away the other team’s forecheck.
“They utilize each other, they get shots though to the net and that’s a big part of the key for us.”
As Beverly prepares for its first state final, it only seems natural that there’s a Hamor with a ‘C’ stitched on his sweater. Matt’s older brother Mitch was also a captain for Beverly hockey, and his younger sister Marlee played for the girls varsity as an eighth grader this winter. His dad, Bill, was also a captain for the Panther icemen, as was his grandfather Bill, who went on to a highly successful career as BHS football coach and athletic director.
Matt Hamor’s mentality of chasing the title for both his teammates and his town exemplifies Beverly.
“It’s our last chance and it feels great to be going to the Garden,” he said. “I feel really lucky to be able to do something my brother couldn’t do. I’m sure we’ll be talking about it this week.”
A mobile defender, Hamor is adept at pokechecking to take the puck away from the other team. That’s true of Munzing, Albano and Morency as well; they’re all good at puck management and are even better at covering up for one another on the occasional turnover.
“They’re great at blocking shots. They eat up everything so I never have to worry about the front of the net,” said Birarelli. “Those guys make sure I can see everything.”
Knowing the strengths and tendencies of their defensive partners, and their goaltender, has developed over time for Beverly.
“It’s been really good,” Birarelli said. “My first year we just started talking, and we knew we’d get the feel for it. By the end of that year we had a great understanding and it’s gotten better and better every year.”
‘Our last shot’
Any one of the defensemen is capable of delivering an open ice hit, though Morency seems to have the knack for bringing the Orange-and-Black crowd to its feet with the most frequency. “Jack is an intimidator. He drops one kid and that’s it for the rest of the game. No one comes near the crease again,” Birarelli said.
“We love to make those hits that get the crowd going,” said Hamor. “We play the body, throw the puck in the zone and we know that’s going to work for us. And, if we can get it to Nick, we know he’s going to make a play.”
Not unlike the bodychecks they finish in the neutral zone, Beverly is intent on finishing Sunday night at TD Garden. They’re one game from immortality, and they’re not taking it lightly.
“If our guys are doing good, as a group, we’re happy,” said Hamor. “This is our last shot at it and we’re going to leave it all out there.”