By Phil Stacey
---- — If you aren’t of the mindset that a so-called ‘big’ game can be played on the second day of January during a high school hockey season, think again.
“When you only play 20 regular season games,” said Peabody head coach Mark Leonard, “every game is a big one.”
If that’s the case, then we can agree that there are varying degrees of how ‘big’ a game actually is.
For Leonard and his Tanners, tonight is a biggie.
Peabody travels across city lines to the Rockett Arena in Salem, where they’ll take on a Danvers team that is finally playing its home opener seven games into the season. It’s also the second annual Mike Clifford Memorial Game, played in honor of the former assistant coach for both programs.
While the host Falcons are crusing along quite nicely with a 4-1-1 mark this winter, Peabody has stumbled a bit. Following a 6-4 upset loss at home to Concord-Carlisle on Monday, the Tanners enter tonight’s Northeastern Conference North clash with a 1-2-1 overall mark — and can’t afford to fall two games under .500 with another setback.
“We always have great games with Danvers,” said Leonard. “Some times we beat them, some years they beat us. I coached a lot of those (Danvers) kids all summer and have a lot of respect for them, their coaches and their program.
“Obviously, there’s a trophy at stake in this game, so it’s a little more meaningful than a typical regular season game. It also gives us a chance to get right back after it after (Monday’s) game, which is great.”
After being shut out of its first two games, the Tanners have scored 10 times in their last two contests. The top line of junior left wing Derek Demild, junior center Mike Vadala and senior captain Matt McIsaac at right wing have clicked since being put together two games ago, having scored seven of those goals and combining for 15 points.
Senior Erik Hennessey, centering sophomore Ryan Carney on the left and senior Tyler Gillespie on his right, all have natural speed and the offensive instincts to start contributing to the attack as well.
Pleasant surprises for Peabody have been sophomore third line left wing J.P. Eason, whom Leonard praised for going hard every shift, be it in a game or practice, with a willingless to mix it up physically; and junior defenseman Guiseppe Zarro, a 6-foot-1, 215-pounder who is finally healthy and playing great after having a concussion, then mononucleosis last season.
In a very winnable game Monday, the Tanners hurt themselves with a myriad of mistakes — everything from defensive zone coverage and taking foolish penalties to mistakes on faceoffs — which led to the visitors scoring four straight goals.
The things his team needs to do to improve, said Leonard, are not difficult tasks. It’s about protecting the puck, particularly in their own zone. Delving further into that thought, it’s also about chipping the puck off the glass and out of the zone while on the penalty kill, rather than trying to clear the disc and run the risk of having it blocked and kept in the zone.
It’s about marking guys off the faceoff draw, or covering the opposing center so he doesn’t sneak around the Peabody defense for a clear look at the net. It’s about clearing rebounds, creating more scoring chances at the other end and, quite simply, reacting instead of thinking.
Special teams is an area the Tanners have to fix immediately. Scoring once in nine power play chances isn’t the real issue; surrendering nine goals on 17 man-down chances is. “We’ve got to clear guys away from the net and not allow those second chance rebounds,” Leonard said.
Leonard has always felt a hockey kinship with Danvers; when he first took over the Peabody High program for the 1995-96 season, his ultimate goal was to build the Tanners into the type of tournament-tested, highly successful program that the legendary Kevin Flynn had built at Danvers High after leaving Peabody in the late 1980s.
He knows what his Tanners will be up against tonight: a typical Danvers team that will skate and grind and play in your face and not give an inch for the full 45 minutes. The Falcons pride themselves on their conditioning, limiting opponents’ shots against and playing physical without being whistled for penalties.
“They’re tough. Real tough,” said Leonard. “(Captain Joe) Strangie (6 goals, 14 points) is a real good player and his left wing, (fellow captain A.J.) Couto (8 goals, 12 points) has a lot of talent. And little Flynnie (junior left wing Matt Flynn) isn’t little any more; he’s a workhorse out there who is tough as nails.
“They’ll bring their best game against us. We have to respond to that and earn anything we can get.”
Speaking of big games, there’s a couple of monster showdowns on the schedule for this Saturday.
At high noon, the two-time defending Super 8 champions from Malden Catholic (3-0-1) invade the Ristuccia Arena in Wilmington to battle St. John’s Prep for the first time this season. The host Eagles, who are 3-1 going into tonight’s home game (8 p.m.) with Framingham, have traditionally taken time to jell in December before starting to hit their stride in January. This clash against the Lancers — who face B.C. High tonight — would be a perfect time to do so.
Five hours later at the Rockett Arena, Beverly and Danvers will do battle in a rivalry that goes back to the days of outdoor rinks and helmetless skaters. If both squads prevail tonight (Beverly hosts Winthrop at 8:10 p.m.), they’ll be battling for Northeastern Conference North supremacy, with only one loss between them. So you’ve got the Panthers’ high-powered offense and vastly underrated D against Danvers’ commitment to team defense and penchant for scoring big goals at the right time? Sign me up.
Having been shut out in each of its last two games, Masconomet (1-4-1) is thirsting for a way to score goals and get back into the win column. Tonight may be as good an opportunity as any as the Chieftains host 0-4-1 Lynnfield.
While Masconomet has struggled to score goals — they’ve been blanked three times in a half-dozen games and have only eight goals on the season — Lynnfield has really struggled on offense, with just one goal in five games. Both teams have allowed 17 goals, so something has to give tonight.
Anyone else notice how many shutouts have already been recorded by local goaltenders?
In 42 games played thus far involving at least one Salem News-area MIAA team, a staggering 10 have already been pitched. More impressively, it’s been nine different netminders who have turned them in.
Harrison Young of Marblehead is the only keeper with two thus far; he blanked Revere on Dec. 19, then did the same thing to Bishop Stang 10 days later. The sophomore has won all three of his starts with a stellar 0.67 goals-against average and splendid .962 save percentage.
Two sophomores from Danvers, Alex Taylor and Jay Joyce, each have shutouts over the same team (Lynnfield). Peabody High captain Joe Powers, like the aforementioned Joyce, has a scoreless tie to his credit (vs. Winthrop). Bishop Fenwick’s Pat O’Leary, Swampscott’s Tristan Bradley, Salem’s Brett Harring (shared with his crease mate, Grant Thompson) and two backstops from Beverly, Tim Biarelli and Bryce Mitchell have also gone the all-zero route in a game this winter.
Unbeaten Beverly has scored almost as many shorthanded goals (4) as power play tallies (5) just five games into the season. Senior captain Andrew Irving — who’s on pace for a ho-hum regular season of 80 points — has three of those shorties and one power play strike; junior cousin and fellow captain Connor Irving has the other man-down tally and has also connected with the man advantage. Center Graham Doherty has potted a pair of markers while his team skates 5-on-4; junior defenseman Matt Hamor, yet another captain, has the other.
The Blue Line Report, a column on North Shore high school hockey, appears each Wednesday during the winter sports season. Contact sports editor Phil Stacey at firstname.lastname@example.org or 978-338-23650, and follow him on Twitter @PhilStacey_SN.
PLAYING FAVORITES with ... JACK MORENCY Beverly Jr. Defenseman
Favorite pregame meal: Pasta with chocolate milk, either the night before a game or a few hours before it. Favorite ritual: I've always dressed from the right foot up first and over to the left foot, for whatever reason. Favorite school subject: Marketing
Favorite defensive play: Physicality so I'm playing the body; get my butt out there and knock someone down. Favorite offensive memory: I had a nice dish to Andrew (Irving) for a goal last year that I liked.
Favorite youth hockey memory: In Mite Instructionals on my birthday, we made it to the championship and went to a shootout; it was awesome.
Favorite hobbies: Golfing and fishing
Favorite sport other than hockey: Football
Favorite hockey logo: The old Mighty Ducks
Favorite hockey quotes: "Hard work beats talent when talent doesn't work" and "You miss 100 percent of the shots you don't take" by Wayne Gretzky