SalemNews.com, Salem, MA

February 6, 2013

The Blue Line Report: Checking out a quintet of must-see games between now and the end of the regular season

The Blue Line Report
Phil Stacey

---- — Four teams in our coverage area — St. John’s Prep, Beverly, Marblehead and Swampscott — have already secured themselves a postseason berth. A fifth, Danvers, will do so by earning one more point in any of its five remaining regular season games.

For each of these squads, the next step in their journey is about securing the highest possible playoff seed. All have winnable games down the homestretch ... but there are also some potential landmines that could put a stink-filled pair of game-worn hockey socks in their plans.

That’s why these five games aren’t only crucial contests for the teams involved, but should also be on the must-see list of North Shore hockey krishnas.

The fantastic five are:

TONIGHT: Marblehead (12-3) vs. Swampscott (11-4) at Salem State (8 p.m.): You can always expect high emotions when the Big Blue and the Headers match up, but tonight’s meeting takes on much more significance since it will essentially decide who emerges as the Northeastern Conference South champion for 2012-13.

Unbeaten in league play, Marblehead (5-0) would have to rate as the favorite going in. The Headers have lost only once since Dec. 27, going 9-1 in that stretch. They’ve already beaten Swampscott once this season (6-3) and go into tonight’s clash knowing that Swampscott will be without its best player, injured defensive star Trevor Massey. A victory tonight would give them a four-point edge over their arch rivals in the league standings with just two games to play, meaning they could do no worse than a share of the league crown.

But Swampscott (4-1 NEC South), who’ll wear its home whites tonight, will come in with something to prove. Having dropped three of their last five games while scoring only 10 goals in that span, there’d be no better time for the Big Blue to get cranking again than against their heated rivals.

Both teams can score; Marblehead has potted 64 goals (half of those in 5 NEC South games) while Swampscott has collected 60. That’ll leave it up to one of the goalies — I’m guessing freshman Tristan Bradley for Swampscott goes against Marblehead’s Harrison Young — to step up and make a save or two that they probably shouldn’t have to secure victory for their team.

SATURDAY: Beverly at Winthrop (5 p.m.): Scant few opponents have given the unbeaten Panthers (13-0-1) a difficult time this season, but Winthrop was one of them. While not a scoring machine — the Vikings (7-3-4) are averaging less than three goals a game — the hosts are quite proficient at shutting teams down with a devilish trap that can frustrate even the most disciplined of teams. It worked for over 35 minutes in the two teams’ first meeting at Salem State and took a power play goal from Beverly defenseman Nick Albano to give his team a 1-0 victory.

By now, Beverly has seen a steady diet of various defensive traps from their opponents and have improved greatly in not only breaking them, but also continuing to attack the net. Witness: against Saugus this past Saturday, the Panthers had little trouble weaving through the Sachems’ neutral zone trap, using speed and their outside wings to gain possession in the offensive zone. While the number of goals scored (4) wasn’t all that plentiful, they did put 46 shots on goal and had an estimated 20 others either blocked or blasted wide of the cage.

Lost in all this is something people keep overlooking: the Panther defense is spectacular in its own right. Opponents have ripped the twine against the Orange-and-Black just 10 times all season — and a mere one time in NEC North competition (by Gloucester). Tim Biarelli has five shutouts, a ridiculous save percentage of .958 and his goals-against average of 0.63 might be the lowest in the state.

On top of all that, Beverly is extremely well-rested; Saturday will mark only its fourth game in 24 days.

WEDNESDAY, FEB. 13: Danvers vs. Beverly at Salem State (6:20 p.m.): By the time the Panthers and the Falcons face off at Rockett Arena a week from tonight, the Blue-and-White hope to already have qualified for the postseason by beating or tying 2-10-2 Saugus this evening. If that’s the case, this one should be a doozy.

Danvers doesn’t need a refresher course on the first time they faced the Panthers; it was a 3-0 setback in which they never got on track offensively while key mistakes led to goals at the other end. Heading into that contest the Falcons were flying high at 5-1-1; since that setback, they’ve gone just 3-3-2. Think of the surge of energy they’d get by turning the tables in next week’s rematch by beating a (possibly still) unbeaten team while also moving to within one point of Beverly in the NEC North standings, giving them a shot to repeat as league champions.

But there is absolutely zero chance that the Panthers won’t be focused and ready to roll in this game. Any time they gaze across the ice and see those royal blue sweaters with the white Falcon crest on them, it lights a fire in the Garden City boys. While the Panthers are arch rivals with Salem in most sports, they consider their biggest hockey rivals to be their neighbors from up Route 62.

Adding intrigue to the matchup is the crowd, which is certainly to have Salem State filled to the gills. Year in and year out, it’s the best regular season crowds for local hockey games, with rabid fan bases (and student sections) from both schools giving it a March-type atmosphere.

SATURDAY, FEB. 16: St. John’s Prep at Springfield Cathedral (noon): Granted, this one will take some effort on your part; to make the trip out to Western Mass. for the first puck drop, you’ll probably have to leave the North Shore no later than 9:30 a.m. And while the mileage out there might hurt you in the wallet, your eyes and brain will thank you for making the trek.

As it currently stands, the purple-clad Panthers (13-0-2) and visiting Eagles (13-2) would rank 1-2 in the Bay State on most people’s lists. Cathedral — which wears a replica of the Montreal Canadiens’ crest on their sweaters — has earned impressive wins already over teams such as B.C. High, Archbishop Williams and Hingham, among others, while tying Central Catholic (which beat St. John’s Prep) and Barnstable. But they also have padded their record (and stats) by beating up on three Division 3 West squads (Longmeadow, East Longmeadow and Minnechaug), and still have to play B.C. High, Rhode Island power Mount St. Charles and St. John’s of Shrewsbury prior to next Saturday’s clash with the Prep, so there’s no guarantee they’ll still be unbeaten.

The newly crowned Catholic Conference champions from St. John’s Prep — the first time in 19 seasons they’ve been able to claim that — know they’ll have their work cut out for them. Trips to Springfield in years past have resulted in difficult games against the Panthers, even when the hosts haven’t been nearly as strong as they are this season. The long bus ride can lead to lethargic legs (which, in fairness, likely happens a lot more to Cathedral on their trips east), and if they get off to a slow start in the first period, it could spell doom.

Still, how can you bet against the Prep at this juncture? The Eagles are literally flying, having won eight straight and tasting defeat only once in 11 games since the calendar turned to 2013. No team has scored more than two goals against the Prep, which has given up just 20 goals on the season. Their four lines can all score and create matchup nightmares for their foes; their six-man defensive rotation is aggressive and smart; and goalie Billy Price has been one of the most pleasant surprises in Eastern Mass. hockey this winter.

FRIDAY, FEB. 22: Beverly vs. Marblehead at Salem State (7 p.m.): What a game to have on the final night of the regular season, pitting two teams that have state championship dreams (in Division 2 and 3, respectively) against each other before the games really start to matter.

The Headers fell to Beverly, 4-1, in the final of the Cape Ann Savings Bank Tournament in Gloucester two days after Christmas, but that score is deceiving: Marblehead had the better of the play for the first 20 minutes and outshot the Panthers in two of three periods, but were forced to kill two third period penalties, which negated any momentum it tried to sustain. The Headers are one of the few teams on BHS’s regular season schedule with the depth, goaltending and big-time experience to play with the Panthers, and they’ll use this showdown to prepare themselves for whatever they’ll face in the playoffs — in fact, they won’t see a team as good as the Orange-and-Black when the Second Season begins.

It’ll also serve as a great barometer for Beverly, no matter if they’re still unbeaten at that point or not; either way they’ll be getting one of the top seeds in Division 2 North. Facing a Marblehead club that is much more cohesive, strategic and confident in its own ability than when they first met nearly two months prior will be an excellent test for them.

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