By Phil Stacey
---- — If you think they’re happy just to be here, you couldn’t be more wrong.
Few, if anyone, had the Danvers High hockey team reaching this year’s Division 2 North title game, which will be played tonight at the Tsongas Center in Lowell (6 p.m.). Wilmington, on the other hand, seemed to not only be the consensus pick to get there, but the defending Division 2 state champions have also been the favorites to win it all again by the majority of those who follow Massachusetts high school hockey.
So while the Falcons (13-6-4) will certainly be skating as the underdogs tonight, don’t expect them to concede anything to the Wildcats (19-3-2). On the contrary, say the players, expect them to fight for every square inch of ice for the full 45 minutes.
“Obviously they’re favored,” said junior left wing Matt Flynn before a recent practice. “We just want to go in, play our game and show what we can do. I’d say they have more skill, but we have all the heart and momentum right now.”
“We know they have three lines that are all very good at cycling the puck down low, and they play in a very tough conference (Middlesex League Freedom Division),” added fellow left wing A.J. Couto, the team’s leading scorer with 26 goals and 36 total points. “Everyone’s picking them to win, so the pressure’s on them. We can just go out play our game, play hard and see what happens at the end.”
Coached by highly successful veteran head coach Steve Scanlon, Wilmington was considered a a possible Super 8 team right up until the end of the season. While they are a Division 2 tournament team, 14 of their 21 regular season opponents were Division 1 foes; the Wildcats went 9-3-2 in those games. Furthermore, they’re a perfect 10-0 against Division 2 squads this winter.
“Certainly, they deserve all the credit. They’ve proved it before; they’ve done it in the past. They deserve everything they’ve gotten,” Danvers head coach Kevin Brown said of the Wildcats.
“For us, it’s just our next game. We’ve got to be focused on playing well together and not worry so much about the opponent, but worry about what we can do.”
This will be the fifth postseason meeting all-time between the two schools; each has won twice. Danvers beat the Wildcats in 1998 (8-5) and during its state championship year of 2001 (5-2), but Wilmington returned the favor in 2008 (2-1), and, most recently, in 2011 (4-2) when the current crop of seniors on both squads were sophomores.
“They got the better of us back in a youth championship game, and knocked us out in the second round two years ago,” captain Joe Strangie said. “So there’s definitely revenge on our minds. You have to respect them with all of their talent and the fact that they play a Division 1 schedule, but we’re playing to win.”
Eighth-seeded Danvers has prevailed in a blowout (9-1 over Somerville), a nailbiter (a 4-3 upset over top-seeded Beverly) and a game that wasn’t as close as the score might indicate (5-3). The common theme in all three was that the Falcons scored in the first minute of each contest and have yet to trail in the playoffs.
“Yeah, it’s a confidence thing,” Brown said of getting on the scoreboard early. “When you’re playing a team that’s No. 1 in the division and defending state champions, you want to try to put a little pressure on them early and instill some confidence in yourself.”
While Danvers has scored 18 times in the postseason (with the Couto-Strangie-Rob Buchanan line accounting for a dozen of those), Wilmington has been absolutely stingy, having surrendered just three goals in the Second Season. The Wildcats are coming off of a thorough 6-0 thumping of second-seeded Lincoln-Sudbury in the semifinals.
Cam Owens, who earlier this season became his school’s all-time leading scorer, is Wilmington’s top scorer and best player. Danvers will not only have to be aware of him at all times, but likely employ various forechecks at him and his linemates in an attempt to prevent them from coming into the Danvers zone with speed and/or on odd-man rushes.
Brendan McDonough and Jake Rogers are other big guns up front; Brian Pickett is a two-way force on defense and junior Drew Foley has proven to be impenetrable at times in the Wilmington cage.
“Speed is such a big part of their game,” Strangie (13 goals, 20 assists) said. “We’ve got to forecheck, we’ve got to backcheck, we’ve got to constantly play with heart.”
This will be the second time in three days the Danvers athletic community will be making the trek up to Tsongas; the hockey team cheered on their basketball brothers in Saturday’s Division 3 North final victory over Wayland, and look forward to having the roles reversed tonight during their own North title game.
Flynn, whose father Kevin preceded Brown as Danvers’ head coach and guided them to a pair of state championships, has been reminding his son that the favorites don’t always win when the stakes are ratcheted up in the glare of the postseason.
“He keeps telling me about 2005, when Danvers was a big underdog against St. Mary’s of Lynn after getting hammered by them late in the regular season, but then beating them (4-2) up at Tsongas,” said the younger Flynn. “They came out with heart and passion and won. Now we’re the underdogs, playing in the same building and all as that team. You never know.”