By Matt Williams
---- — NORTH BILLERICA — Danvers High hockey fans take note: when the Falcons play in the state tournament this season, don’t be fashionably late.
For the third time in three playoff games, Danvers all-senior first line of Rob Buchanan, Joe Strangie and A.J. Couto scored on the first shift and propelled their team to victory, this one a 5-3 triumph over Concord-Carlisle at Chelmsford Forum that sent the Falcons to the Division 2 North final.
Last night, Buchanan opened the scoring just 39 seconds into the game after Strangie kept the puck alive and dished to Couto, who had scored in the opening minute of Danvers’ first two playoff wins. This time, he opted to feed Buchanan, who buried his chance.
“The starts have been crucial for us,” said Couto, who has eight of his team’s 18 postseason goals. “It’s great to get that first one in because it puts the pressure on the other team.”
Goals in the first minute and last minute of periods are both rare and crucial in hockey games. On this improbable run to their first North final since 2005, Danvers (13-6-4) has taken full advantage of those backbreaking tallies with seven combined first-and-last-minute goals in these playoffs.
Finding ways to score on those most important of shifts is a sign of Danvers’ mettle. The mental resolve that has set them apart over the last seven days will need to carry into next Monday’s final against defending state champion Wilmington at Tsongas Arena.
“They’re expending energy in order to focus,” said Falcons head coach Kevin Brown. “This was game three of the journey, and if you want to make it a long journey you need to make that next one the biggest one. We had two good days of practice and credit our guys for being ready.”
That focus kept the Danvers snowball rolling downhill last night, as the Falcons added Strangie’s power play goal at 3:03 of the first and went ahead 3-0 when Couto scored at 7:15.
All together, the Buchanan-Strangie-Couto combination has 12 playoff goals and 25 points. Shift after shift in the North semis last night, they pressure Concord-Carlisle and created scoring opportunities.
“I can’t put a finger on it, but sometimes things click,” said Brown. “We went though some changes to find the right set-up and we’re happy with that set-up.”
A last-minute goal by senior Adam Merry in the second turned the tide in Danvers favor for good. The Patriots had made it 3-2 before Couto potted one to make the lead two with 6:49 left in the period. Then as time wound down, senior Kevin Anderson (goal, five assists in the playoffs) took a shot from the point.
Merry dug out the rebound and scored with just eight seconds left in the period to make it 5-2.
“The biggest goal of the game,” Brown said. “Adam was just being tough. Sometimes you have to be tough in this sport and score those dirty areas to score goals.”
Perhaps Danvers has benefited from fast starts because their seniors are positively thrilled to be playing hockey in the month of March. They’re coming up on the end of their careers, and they’re happy to be hitting in ice in Blue-and-White again.
“We don’t want it to end. We want to keep playing hockey,” said Couto. “To win feels great. To have an opportunity to play at Tsongas for a chance to go to the state championship, that’s all we can ask for.”
Things are clicking right now for Danvers: The scorers are scoring, the defenders like Anderson, Shea Doyle, Mike DiSciullo and Kevin Ganley are defending. The role-playing forecheckers are buzzing around the zone, and goalie Alex Taylor is making saves.
Everybody is doing his job. Its the product of relentless mental focus, and the end result is a place Danvers hockey hasn’t been in eight years.
“There’s a lot of pressure on seniors in these situations and they’ve stepped up,” said Brown. “This is certainly the time of their life for a lot of these kids and they’re thankful that we can play again.”