By Phil Stacey
---- — No high school hockey team in the Commonwealth has lost fewer games this season than the Austin Prep Cougars.
Coach Louis Finocchiaro’s squad is young, talented, offensively gifted and defensively sound. They swept their city rivals from Reading High in the Super 8 playoff quarterfinals, allowing just one goal in the two-game sweep. With an overall record at 15-1-6, the Cougars are a team that much be respected and considered extremely dangerous.
So who did they lose that one game to?
Glad you asked.
It just happens to be St. John’s Prep, their opponent in tonight’s Super 8 semifinals at the Tsongas Center in Lowell. The contest, scheduled to start at 7:45 p.m. as the back end of a semifinal doubleheader, marks the second time they’ve met this season; St. John’s bested the Cougars, 5-1, at the Stoneham Arena back on Jan. 19.
Will that first meeting have any bearing on tonight’s game? Both coaches vehemently say no.
“We played them two months ago ... and to me it feels like two years ago,” said Kristian Hanson, the head coach of top-seeded St. John’s Prep (19-3-1). “What matters is what happens (tonight).
“Austin Prep is a really talented team, with a lot of excellent forwards and a terrific goalie in (Elijah) Harris. And they certainly know how to win.”
Finocchiro, the former Saugus High head coach (who guided the Sachems to their first state title in 1999) who has been at Austin Prep for the past 10 seasons, harkens back to a preseason trip his team made up to the University of New Hampshire and borrowing a bit of wisdom from Wildcats’ head coach Dick Umile.
“Coach Umile told us that with his team, every opponent has no face, no name. They get prepared and play every team the same,” Finocchiaro recalled. “That’s their motto, and one we’ve adopted for ourselves. We just worry about our game and what we can do to succeed.
“There’s no question St. John’s is a great team; they were a unanimous No. 1 choice (for the Super 8 seedings) and they have depth, senior leadership and great balance among their four lines.”
The biggest difference between the two parochial powers is that St. John’s Prep has 16 seniors on its roster, while the fourth-seeded Cougars have just six. Among the team’s top nine forwards, three are sophomores and four are freshmen. Maturity, said Finocchiaro, is a big reason why his team is in the Super 8 semis.
The Reading High team that Austin Prep just dispatched had 17 seniors on it, so clearly it isn’t afraid of going up against older, more experienced players.
Nolan Vesey (the team’s leading scorer with 32 points), Cam Russo and freshman Eric McAdams of Salem make up the Cougars’ first line; McAdams (8 goals, 10 assists) had a goal in his team’s 2-1 victory over Reading in Game 1 of their quarterfinal series. Sophomore Bobo Carpenter, son of St. John’s Prep legend Bobby Carpenter, centers the second line for Austin Prep, flanked by classmate Ryan McDonough on his right and freshman Jake McKennelley on his left. Senior Frankie Candelino is the pivot between freshmen George Sennott and Brent Hill on the third line, and seniors Sean Pickens, Matt Dube and Charley Shippee are the checking unit.
On defense, junior Andrew Cross is the main cog; he double shifts, kills penalties, heads up the power play and is a true on-ice leader, paired with senior Zach Fuller. J.J. Layton of Peabody (8 points) has had a terrific freshman season on the Cougars’ second D-pairing with sophomore Matt Morgan, with junior Brendan Leach and sophomore Kevin Kiley the third set. They keep the front of the net clear for Harris, a seemingly unflappable netminder who has allowed less than two goals per game.
“They’re as confident as any team in the state — and rightfully so,” Hanson said of Austin Prep. “What’s important is that we believe they can beat us; if not, we’ll be sadly mistaken at the end of the game.”
St. John’s, which played an extremely physical quarterfinal series with Central Catholic before winning in three games, hopes to do the same thing tonight at Tsongas’ larger ice surface while using their speed to attack the Cougars’ cage.
Defensemen such as Evan Leclerc, James Brightney, Ryan Byrne and captain Brent Murray all played very well the last two contests against Central Catholic, taking the body at every opportunity. And as it has all season, the scoring has been spread out for St. John’s in the playoffs, with a dozen skaters registering at least one point but no one player with more than three.
“We need to be disciplined, make good choices with the puck and at the end of the day, the team who makes the fewest mistakes will win,” said Finocchiaro. “I think it’s going to be like a great heavyweight fight; they’re a very good team, we’re a very good team.
“(Tonight), 45 minutes will determine which one of us moves on.”
THREE KEYS TO A ST. JOHN'S PREP WIN 1. Pressure the puck all over. The Eagles can be a tenacious forechecking team and subsequently force opponents into turnovers, leading directly to golden scoring opportunities. 2. Stay physical. Central Catholic got in their faces early and often during their three-game quarterfinal battle, but the Eagles gave as good as they got -- and then some. Wearing down the speedy but smaller Cougars tonight could be huge. 3. Bring pucks to the net. Instead of settling for wrist shots from the top of the circle or waiting for the perfect set up out front, St. John's needs to attack AP goalie Elijah Harris whenever possible, jamming his crease with bodies and creating havoc out front. It's a formula that could lead to some timely goals.