By Phil Stacey
---- — The storylines are seemingly endless.
You have a hockey team that earned its first-ever top billing in the Super 8 tournament and is desperate to capture the state’s elite postseason championship for the first time.
There’s another team in the next town over that stands atop the pack in the Division 2 North draw and wants to bring home the city’s first ever hockey championship. Or another squad that hails from the same town as the Super 8 entry, one that has two state championships in its history books and would love to make it three.
It’s more of the same in Division 3 North, where bitter rivals and neighbors sit in the Nos. 2 and 3 spots, respectively. One is looking for its second state championship in three seasons and by all accounts is the favorite to win the North; the other squad, coming off of a school record tying 15 wins in the regular season, is chomping at the bit to taste postseason success for the first time since February 1969.
Got all that?
That’s the North Shore high school hockey scene on the eve of the 2013 state playoffs, and all five local squads — St. John’s Prep, Beverly, Danvers, Marblehead and Swampscott, in order as described above — have a story to tell ... one they all hope culminates on St. Patrick’s Day at TD Garden in Boston, site of state championship Sunday.
It’s been 48 days since St. John’s Prep suffered a defeat. Since that time, the Eagles have won 12 games and tied another to finish the season 17-2-1 overall and earn the program its first-ever No. 1 seed in the Super 8.
It will be 10 days between games for St. John’s Prep, which opens tournament play Sunday at Tsongas Arena in Lowell. They’ll meet the winner of tomorrow’s play-in game between No. 8 Central Catholic (13-5-3) and ninth seeded Hingham (13-7-2) in a best-of-three series, with the winner moving on to the Super 8 semfinals. The Prep defeated Hingham in its second game of the season (4-1) before suffering one of its two losses in the next game on the road against Central (2-1).
“Both of those games were hard fought and we know whoever wins (tonight’s) game will give us a huge challenge,” said Eagles’ head coach Kristian Hanson, whose teams have reached the Super 8 title game and semifinals the last two seasons, respectively.
“The level of play when you get to the tournament is so elevated; as a coach you really don’t know if your players are ready or not until they hit the ice. Fortunately for us, we have a bunch of guys back with big-game experience from our past tourmament runs; they know what it takes as far as raising their games up.”
St. John’s Prep, which rolls four lines and six defensemen consistently, didn’t allow more than two goals in a game during the regular season. First-year goaltender Billy Price won 14 games with a goals-against average of 1.35 while nine different players had at least 10 points, led by Providence-bound center Brian Pinho (15 goals, 39 points).
With one of the best regular seasons in program history behind them, top-seeded Beverly (18-1-1) is out to prove any doubters wrong in the ultra-competitive Division 2 North playoffs. With fewer teams (14) in the draw than in recent years, the competition remains top notch with powerhouses like defending state champ Wilmington (16-3-2), Lincoln-Sudbury (15-2-3), Tewksbury (14-3-1) and always tough Newburyport (12-3-5), among others, gunning for the crown.
“I think any one of the top 10 teams in the draw can win it,” said Beverly assistant coach Justin Shairs. “It’s going to be a tough road to take the whole thing; you can’t have a bad day at this point or you’re done.”
The Panthers treated wins over Winthrop (4-2) and Marblehead (5-1) last week as playoff-type games to get them in the postseason frame of mind. There’s been a ramped-up emphasis on defensive zone coverage; despite allowing a mere 20 goals in the regular season, the Orange-and-Black know they’ll need to kick it up another few notches as far as protecting their own net now that the postseason has arrived.
Having sophomore Tim Biarelli (14 wins, 0.77 GAA, 7 shutouts) between the pipes helps. So do defensemen Matt Hamor, Nick Albano, Sean Munzing and Jack Morency in front of him. Beverly has scored 97 goals, led by Graham Doherty’s 20 and 14 each from cousins Andrew and Connor Irving.
Beverly will face the winner of tomorrow’s showdown between a pair of squads with identical 10-6-4 records as eighth-seeded Danvers meets No. 9 Somerville at Salem State (7 p.m.). Beverly and Danvers met twice this winter, with the Panthers winning both games (3-0 and 4-2).
“They won the (Greater Boston League) title, were undefeated (5-0-1) in league play and are a tournament-tested team,” Danvers head coach Kevin Brown said of Somerville. “They’ve scored some goals this season (70) and are going to be physical to play against.”
Coming off of a much-needed win in its regular season finale over Triton, the Falcons want to build off of that momentum and do many of the same things tomorrow that led to that success, such as making plays off the forecheck and continuing to limit shots against.
Only 40 goals have been scored against the Oniontowners this winter, as first-year starting goalie Alex Taylor (10 wins, 1.96 GAA, 3 shutouts) has been a gem. Kevin Anderson, Mike Disciullo, Shea Doyle and Stephen Ganley are the four bedrocks in front of him defensively, while seniors A.J. Couto (18) and captain Joe Strangie (12) have scored more than half of Danvers’ 59 goals.
In Division 3 North, Marblehead (17-5) looks to put last Friday’s 5-1 loss to Beverly behind them and focus on what allowed them to be successful all season.
“We told the players after the game to leave it in the locker room and move forward. You can’t change it,” said Bobby Jackson, the Headers’ veteran coach. “We did a lot of things right this season; now it’s just time to refocus, stay sharp and be ready to play once the games start.”
Marblehead is off until Saturday, when it will face the winner of Thursday’s first round contest between seventh seeded Wayland (9-7-4), last year’s North champion, and No. 10 Rockport (8-8-2), which beat the Headers in last year’s playoffs. The game site and time have yet to be determined.
“Right now we’re just preparing to play someone in a dark colored shirt,” said Jackson. “Those two teams are similar in that they’ve got strong goaltenders, a couple of good defensemen and forwards who can score.”
Their rivals could say the same thing about Marblehead. Seven of its top nine forwards have at least 10 points, led by Tom Koopman’s 40 points and Trip Franzese’s 34, as well as two defensemen (Liam Gillis with 15 and Kyle Koopman with 11). Junior goalies Harrison Young and Myles Barry have rotated all season, and Jackson is leaning towards continuing that trend in the postseason.
It’s been 44 long years since Swampscott beat Andover, 6-0, for its last playoff win. This year’s Big Blue (15-5) have made it their mission to change that, beginning Saturday against the winner of No. 6 St. Joseph Prep (9-6-3) and 11th seeded Northeast Regional (8-8-4). Swampscott crushed St. Joseph, 8-0, in the East Boston Deep Freeze Tournament back in late December, but head coach Gino Faia is taking nothing for granted.
“We definitely can not look ahead. Whoever we play, we have to go in and not worry about what they’re doing, but focus more on what we need to do,” said Faia. “For us it all starts with defense, and the offense will come from that.”
Never before has one of Faia’s teams have five 20-point scorers, but they do this winter in Nunzio Morretti (24), Corey Carmody (22), Trevor Massey (22), freshman Noah Maercklein (20) and Chris Carman (20). All three lines are capable of popping home goals and the defense is also dangerous when they cross center ice. In goal, Swampscott will put its hopes on Tristan Bradley, who went 10-2 with a 1.68 GAA and three shutouts this winter as a freshman.
A potential semifinal matchup with their arch rivals from Marblehead could await if Swampscott gets past its first round game. “We’re strictly focused on getting that first win,” said Faia. “If we do and Marblehead’s up next, we’ll deal with it when the time comes.”
This marks the 14th time in the 23-year history of the Super 8 state hockey tournament that St. John's Prep has been selected, but the first time the Eagles have been the No. 1 seed. Here are the spots that St. John's have been seeded in the Super 8 and in what years: No. 1 seed: 2013 No. 2 seed: 1991, 1994, 2007, 2011 No. 3 seed: 2008, 2011 No. 4 seed: 1992 No. 5 seed: 1999 No. 6 seed: 2004 No. 7 seed: None No. 8 seed: 1998 No. 9 seed: None No. 10 seed: 2003*, 2005, 2006* * â€" The Prep lost the play-in game and fell back into the Division 1 North state tournament.