By Dan Harrison
---- — SALEM — The Swampscott High hockey team started off with a bang in the first minute of play Saturday afternoon against unbeaten Beverly.
But for the remainder of the game, all the explosiveness came from the Panthers.
Griffin Hunt took advantage of a misplayed puck at the Beverly point and beat netminder Tim Birarelli blocker side on a breakaway to give the Big Blue a one-goal lead less than a minute in. Before the period was over, however, Beverly took the lead and would dominate the rest of the way, handing Swampscott just its second loss in a 4-1 win.
“Naturally you don’t want to let anything like that (first Swampscott goal) happen,” explained Beverly (11-0-1) head coach Bob Gilligan. “But we came back after that.”
Beverly controlled play for the rest of the contest and spent a majority of the time in the Swampscott defensive zone. It may have been only a three-goal game, but the Panthers held a whopping 39-9 shot advantage.
“They’re a good team. They move the puck well; we did everything we could to try and defend them,” noted Big Blue (9-2) head man Gino Faia. “We just couldn’t generate any offense.”
Swampscott was playing shorthanded without seniors Trevor Massey on defense or Corey Carmody at forward. But even when Beverly was on the penalty kill, the Big Blue simply couldn’t set up in the offensive zone and sustain any real pressure in front of Birarelli. Both times Swampscott went man-up in the third period, it failed to get a single shot on net.
“I think we were just pressing,” said Faia. “We’ve been actually working the power play pretty well lately; we just weren’t making good decisions with the puck (Saturday) and kind of panicking and turning it over.”
When they were on the penalty kill, Panther forwards Kevin Lally, Graham Doherty, Connor Irving and Andrew Irving did a phenomenal job of being aggressive and harassing the Swampscott forwards in the neutral zone and as soon as they gained the offensive zone.
“We attack them (on the PK) and don’t let them get comfortable,” said Gilligan. “We play an aggressive type of system. Our forwards, we stress to go right at them: don’t let them get comfortable. You could see a little panic on their part. They never set up.”
Lally, Doherty and linemate Jake Straw were phenomenal as the Panthers’ second line Saturday. After Hunt’s early marker, Straw absorbed a hit in his defensive zone but moved the puck up and out to Doherty in the neutral zone. Streaking down the right wing, Doherty let a quick wrister fly and the puck found its way just under Trent Gallagher’s glove to make the score 1-1.
Then, just before the end of the first period, Lally forced a Swampscott turnover at the blue line and fired the puck in deep. Moments later the rubber squirted out to junior defenseman Jack Morency at the right point, and he ripped a low hard slap shot that beat Gallagher through traffic for the eventual game-winner.
Lally, who is probably his team’s smallest skater, is a real hockey player’s hockey player and the Panthers’ hardest working forward in the corners. Doherty, meanwhile, has emerged as an elite finisher who is a dangerous scoring presence on Beverly’s second line.
“(Lally) sticks his nose in there. He’s a coach’s dream; (he) does whatever you want and he’ll sacrifice (his body and take) the hits to get the puck in deep,” said Gilligan. “He’ll take hits left and right and comes up with the puck all the time. He’s been that way since I’ve had him.
“And Graham’s turned into a player. The skill level has always been there, and he’s really stepping up this year. He’s become a dominant player.”
Gallagher (35 saves) was under fire throughout, but stood tall and did an excellent job of fighting through screens. The Big Blue defensive strategy appeared to be to pack it in close to the net and force Beverly to shoot from outside. For the most part the Panthers’ shots were low, but Gallagher was up to the task.
The Panthers didn’t need to ask Birarelli for much; they cleared the puck with great consistency and really played well in the neutral zone. Defensemen Nick Albano, Matt Hamor, Sean Munzing and Morency’s patience with the puck allowed the Panthers to gain the offensive zone with possession as opposed to dumping it in.
The defense had two of Beverly’s four goals on Saturday as Albano one-timed a cross-slot feed from Connor Irving on a second period power play to give Beverly a 3-1 lead. The younger Irving would then add his team’s final goal when he sniped a shot through Gallagher’s 5-hole late in the third.