By Phil Stacey
---- — SALEM — Way back in early December, when the Beverly High hockey team made a preseason weekend trip to play on Martha’s Vineyard, the players were each asked to write down some of their goals for the upcoming season.
To a man, the Panther players had two similar wishes: win the Northeastern Conference North title and finish the regular season unbeaten.
They now find themselves on the cusp of achieving both.
“Obviously we all want to make it to the (TD) Garden and play for a state championship. But those other goals come first,” said sophomore goalie Tim Biarelli, who had a season high 30 saves as the Panthers doubled up their NEC North rivals from Danvers, 4-2, before the usual packed house at the Rockett Arena last night.
The victory gave the unbeaten Panthers (14-0-1) complete command in the conference standings; they sit at 7-0 within the league, three points ahead of Danvers with a game in hand. A victory back at Salem State this Saturday against Gloucester would give the Orange-and-Black their first league championship in hockey since 1990.
To put that time frame in perspective, it would be five years before any of the current BHS players were born; assistant coach Justin Shairs was in the third grade; and the Bruins would play in the Stanley Cup final that season ... against the Mark Messier-led Edmonton Oilers juggernaut.
“We really tried to be physical out there right out of the gates and get the crowd into it,” added junior right wing Jake Straw, who had one of his best performances of the season with a goal and an assist while skating on the top line for the first time. “This was our game.”
In gaining a season sweep of the Falcons, Beverly wore specially-made pink uniforms for this ‘Pink The Rink’ night that drew attention to fighting cancer (which head coach Bobby Gilligan has done for the last two years). Many of the Danvers players worn pink hockey tape over their shin pads and on their sticks as well.
Danvers (9-5-3 overall, 5-1-2 NEC North) became the first team all season to outshoot the Panthers (32-30) and employed a number of tactics in an attempt to slow down and/or frustrate their unbeaten foes, from using several variations of neutral zone traps and using a 2-man backchecking scheme to attempting to hit their wide wing with breakout passes up ice, resulting in scoring chances.
But those facts were of little consolation to the Falcons, who watched as the few mistakes they made were pounced upon and turned into goals by the ever-opportunistic Panthers.
“I liked some parts of our game. I thought 5-on-5 we played pretty well,” said Danvers head coach Kevin Brown, whose team got an outstanding effort from senior center Adam Merry. “But give (Beverly) credit; they capitalize any time you make a mistake, and we dug ourselves too big of a hole.”
Enjoying a rare night when he was busy between the pipes — “I like these games much more than when I only see 10 shots or so,” he said — Biarelli had one of his best games of the season. The sophomore stood tall and played his angles to near-perfection, stopping a number of excellent scoring opportunities by the Blue-and-White from in close.
“Obviously, (Biarelli) is a good goalie and against a guy like that, you need second chances to cash in on,” said Brown. “They are who they are, and it starts in the net with him.”
A good back-and-forth first period resulted in just one goal, as junior captain Connor Irving took a nice 2-on-1 feed from his cousin, senior Andrew Irving, deked goaltender Alex Taylor (25 saves) and tucked in a shot to give Beverly a 1-0 lead after one period. That cushion swelled to three after two second period tallies: a breakaway goal by Straw at 6:38 and a rebound goal by Graham Doherty (scooping up Straw’s initial shot) a little less than six minutes later.
“I jumped off the bench, saw their defenseman with the puck and went at him,” said the 17-year-old Straw, who missed seven games earlier this season with mononucleosis and a hand injury. “I managed to get it loose and just took off towards the net. (Taylor) went to poke-check me, so I just slid the puck by him.”
Nate MacLaughlin’s quick wrister from the near circle made it 4-0 early in the third before Danvers’ resiliency took hold. After having allowed just one goal total in 20 periods of NEC North play, Beverly watched as Joe Strangie roofed a shot with 4:14 to play to put the Falcons on the board before A.J. Couto scored four seconds into a power play with 95 seconds to play.
But that’s all the Panthers would allow. Now, they’re one conference win away from making history, and just five games away (which they’ll play in a seven-day stretch) from finishing the regular season unbeaten.
“We’ll feed off of this,” said Biarelli. “We’re ready for the stretch run, to stay healthy and well rested and keep improving as a team. Let’s get after it.”