SalemNews.com, Salem, MA

February 20, 2013

The Blue Line Report: Loose pucks

News, notes and observations from the world of North Shore boys hockey

The Blue Line Report
Phil Stacey

---- — Today, we take the journalistic equivalent of a bag skate.

That is, let’s empty out the notebook from observations gleaned from two-plus months on the North Shore hockey circuit as we get ready for the playoff seedings to come out this weekend.

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No player had scored more than two points in a game against Beverly this season. That is, until junior center Mike Vadala had a career outing two days ago by netting a goal and dishing out three assists in the Tanners’ colossal 5-3 upset of the previously unbeaten Panthers. Vadala was terrific on the forecheck and created his chances off that, getting into space and giving himself time to create.

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If you’re a fan of numerology — or hockey bloodlines — then you’ll love this. The three Koopman brothers skating for Marblehead this winter (Tom, Kyle and Matt Koopman) combined on a goal in the Headers’ 13-1 pasting of Salem last weekend. Tom, a junior captain, got the goal, while Matt (a freshman center) and Kyle (freshman defenseman) earned the apples. But what really made it interesting was that it was Marblehead’s 11th goal of the night, and it came at 11:11 of the third period.

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The Zamboni hadn’t begun to make new ice Monday afternoon, and already folks who follow the Beverly High hockey program were saying the Panthers’ loss to Peabody could wind up being a good thing in the long run. Naturally, it’s better to suffer a setback late in the regular season (after the Northeastern Conference title had already been decided, and when it doesn’t affect you in the playoff seedings) than a week from now come state tournament time. Just as importantly, I think it gives Beverly a chance to not only self-evaluate and go about fixing their mistakes (giving up odd-man rushes, too many guys trying to beat defenders 1-on-1, playing better in the face of adversity), but also to let the acrid taste of that loss sit in their collective guts for a few days ... so that they despise the feeling so much they do everything in their power to avoid it the rest of the season.

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One of the hundreds of little things that make hockey great: the traditions that teams come up with; they can carry them year-to-year or start them in a particular season and see them through until the season’s final whistle has blown. St. John’s Prep has had one for a few years now where the “player of the game” (chosen by the coaches) gets to wear assistant coach Dave Hennessey’s royal blue satin Prep hockey jacket from back in the early 1980s. Danvers head coach Kevin Brown started a similar tradition this winter, handing out “The Rock” to a deserving player after each victory. The rock symbolizes strength, stability and being solid in all areas.

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A junior whom I see making a big leap statistically in his senior year next winter: Killian Fitzpatrick of Salem.

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A win tonight at Salem State over West Springfield (5 p.m.) would give Swampscott 15 wins in 20 games — tied for the most in one season in program history.

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That’d be nice, but the Big Blue have much bigger fish to fry: They haven’t won a playoff game since 1969. As in, before man walked on the moon. Before Woodstock, Watergate, Wham! and Willie Mays Hayes. Before any of “The Godfather” movies ... or “Rocky” movies ... or “Star Wars” movies had ever been made. As in, Bobby Orr’s third season in the NHL. (Get the picture?)

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Junior left wing Andrew Bisconti entered last week with one point, a goal, for Peabody on the season. He’s now quintupled that just two games later, getting two assists in a win over Saugus and scoring once while assisting on another in the Tanners’ huge upset of Beverly two days ago.

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It’s a pretty simple formula if Masconomet (8-8-2) is going to qualify for the postseason by earning at least two points over its final two regular season games: the Chieftains have to come at both Triton (tonight) and non-league foe Arlington (tomorrow) with physicality. It’s the genesis of everything good that’s happened to the Tri-Town school on the ice this winter, and it’s a must if they want to set the tone in these two contests.

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Having said that, if I’m Masconomet, there’s no way I’m banking on going into Arlington and taking a point or two from the Division 1 North tourney-bound Spy Ponders. Instead, the Chieftains have to look at tonight’s game against 11-6-1 Triton (7:50 p.m. in Haverhill) as a must-win. The Vikings (another team that’s already punched its postseason ticket) clipped Masco a month and a half ago (4-2), but have gone just 5-4-1 since that contest. In every sense of the word, it’s a must-win for head coach Andrew Jackson’s team tonight.

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Should Masconomet qualify for the playoffs, it appears as though it would be a 16-team field in Division 2 North. Stoneham, which finished the regular season 6-10-4, would be the only team in the draw with a losing record, having qualified with the “Sullivan Rule” (i.e., sporting a winning record in games against Division 2 teams, going 5-2-1).

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With two regular season games remaining, Danvers has scored 55 goals — showing remarkable balance in doing so. Broken down, it comes out to 19 goals in the first period, 18 in the second stanza and 18 more in the third.

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I suppose it’s not surprising, given the number of defections they had from last winter’s Super 8 team, but it’s strange seeing St. Mary’s of Lynn on the outside looking in for this year’s playoffs. The Spartans have been a postseason staple under head coach Mark Lee for years, and you have to hope this is just a blip in the road as they rebuild for another run of future tournament success.

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If you believe a “most valuable player” should be just that to his team, then Trevor Massey of Swampscott was an easy choice for the Northeastern Conference South honors. He’s the quarterback of the Big Blue, the one who gets everything going from starting plays in the back end to making sure the power play is whirring on all cylinders. He’s also a minute muncher and has no problem dishing out (or taking) punishment in front of the net or along the walls to get the puck out of his team’s zone. Swampscott sputtered when he was injured and out of the lineup; his return means the world to his squad.

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How many members of the 2013 Catholic Conference champion St. John’s Prep hockey team realize that their head coach, Kristian Hanson, had 64 points his senior season for the 1994 Catholic Conference champion St. John’s Prep hockey team?

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I say if Beverly is going to have a long and prosperous playoff run, then Jake Straw is going to play a vital role in it. Since returning from an early season injury and taking a few games to round back into form, Straw has been clicking up front: first with center Graham Doherty on the second line, and more recently on the top unit with Andrew and Connor Irving. Creative with the puck, strong on his skates and good in traffic, Straw’s current stat line (6-5-11) will be deceiving to any team that dares not pay attention to him at all times.

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Marblehead junior goalie Harrison Young has played 450 minutes and has made 170 saves. Fellow junior netminder Myles Barry has played 435 minutes and made 152 saves.

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I really think Peabody is going to be able to turn it around next winter. Seven of the Tanners’ top nine forwards (Derek DeMild, Owen Brewster, Ryan Carney, Bobby Caproni, Reed Foster, Bisconti and Vadala) will be back; so will five of their seven defensemen (Cam Smullen, Guiseppe Zarro, Donny Shaw, Aaron Dollin and Anthony Hartnett). Sophomore Stephen Ferrante and freshman Freddy Robitaille will battle for the starter’s job in goal; that’s a whole lot of depth that’s only going to get better back in the Tanners’ stable in 2013-14.

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My favorite North Shore hockey name of the year: Edison Forbes of Masconomet. The 6-foot-2 junior forward from Boxford — nicknamed “Big Ed” — has a name that sounds so regal, it’s almost presidential.

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Win or lose their season finale tonight at home against Lowell, by all accounts it’s been a splendid season for the Witches of Salem (5-11-3). Having gone from one win and two points in the standings a year ago to double-digit points and the possibility of finishing with a half-dozen wins is nothing short of remarkable. First-year head coach Teddy Hanley has done a brilliant job since day one getting the players to believe in themselves, in his philosophies and systems, and in the fact that together, they can achieve success on the ice that Salem hasn’t seen since the program’s heyday in the early 2000s.

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Beverly assistant coaches Jason Lantych and Mike Bocuzzi, who watch games from either the press box or the stands, have a ritual that’s worked virtually every game for their team: They each eat a pretzel after the second period. Hockey superstitions, after all, don’t stop once you’re done playing and move into coaching.

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The best trio you’ve probably never seen play? Easy; that goes to Bishop Fenwick’s Nick Finan, Drew Thibodeau and Mike Napolitano. The Crusaders have only three wins in 20 games with two to play and have continued to ride a rocky road in their second season as a Division 1 program. But the above-mentioned trio are legit, having accounted for nearly two-thirds of Fenwick’s total points this winter (48 of 75) and have scored an amazing 80 percent (25 out of 30) of its total goals.

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Another position player who could skate for just about any other team locally? Fenwick defenseman P.J. Usalis.

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I’m not sure enough credit has gone to Danvers goaltender Alex Taylor. Goaltending was a complete question mark for the Falcons coming into the winter, but Taylor won the job with his play in the preseason and hasn’t let go of the reins yet. He hasn’t been spectacular, per se, but in most instances the team doesn’t need him to be; simply stopping the puck and preventing rebounds has done just fine, thank you very much. From never having played a single minute of varsity hockey before December, Taylor has gone 9-5-3 with a 1.93 goals-against average and three shutouts while playing all but 65 minutes in the Falcons’ cage. Impressive, to say the least.

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There’s been some juggling here and there of the top three lines, but the one constant up front for St. John’s Prep has been the trio of Paul Crehan-Cam Shaheen-Justin Longo has remained intact all season — and with good reason. Hailing, respectively, from Manchester, Boxford and Wakefield, this fourth line (a moniker so laughable it’s not funny; they’d be, at worst, the second line on 95 percent of the state’s high school teams) has scored a combined 20 goals and 41 points ... including a mind-boggling eight game-winning or game-tying strikes. Are they the best fourth line in Massachusetts hockey history? Seriously, are they?

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If you skate well and have good hands, your team is going to find a place for you in a scoring role. Witness: Masconomet senior Anthony Anzalone, used in a checker’s role for much of the season but who has produced lately when he’s had his chances. He’s doubled his season point total over the last two games with two goals and a like number of assists and is a player the Chieftains can use when there’s an offensive zone faceoff.

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It should come as no surprise that the three North Shore teams with the best records — Beverly, St. John’s Prep and Marblehead — also have, by far, the best team save percentages in the area. A huge barometer of how well a team will fare in the playoffs, the NEC champion Panthers went into last night’s game in Winthrop with a .930 save percentage. The Eagles of St. John’s Prep took a .928 save percentage into last night’s game with St. John’s Shrewsbury, and Marblehead has a .926 save percentage through 20 games.

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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.