SalemNews.com, Salem, MA

January 22, 2014

The Blue Line Report: Measuring playoff stock heading into second half

Blue Line Report
Phil Stacey

---- — We’re now into the second half of the regular season schedule, a time for the boys of winter to either start to sew up a playoff berth or make a frantic push to (hopefully) punch their own ticket to the invite-only postseason dance.

Beverly (12-0-1) became the first North Shore qualifier when they trampled Wakefield more than a week ago. Other locals will join them before all of the bids are due Feb. 21 — but who?

There are some teams that, barring minor miracles, could get that coveted chance to skate on the TD Garden ice on Championship Sunday. For others, it’s going to take some work — and for a certain few, a lot of work.

So let’s take this opportunity to examine a half-dozen area clubs that have a realistic shot of earning a postseason bid and what they need to do to qualify:

MARBLEHEAD (9-3)

Analysis: It’s not a question of if the Headers will get in but when; a lot of new varsity faces have meshed quite nicely with the half-dozen or so regulars who returned this winter. Marblehead is scoring better than five goals a game and has picked it up defensively of late with back-to-back shutouts. Getting scoring from guys like seniors Tim Kalinowski and Erik Powers, as well as freshman Braden Haley -- all of whom have 12 points -- have given this team a shot in the arm to go along with brothers Tom (26 points) and Matt Koopman (21) and offensive-minded blueliner Liam Gillis (18). Senior goalies Myles Barry and Harrison Young also seem to be rounding into form, which is great for the Headers but bad for future opponents.

Key upcoming games: Saturday vs. Winthrop (2:50); Wednesday, Jan. 29 at Beverly (7); Wednesday, Feb. 12 at Danvers (5); Monday, Feb. 17 at Amesbury (3).

MASCONOMET (6-2-2)

Analysis: Terrific team defense -- the Chieftains have surrendered just one goal in each of their last four games -- has put the Tri-Town team in prime position to qualify for the playoffs for the first time in three seasons. Goalie Mitch Nekoroski (1.81 GAA) isn’t seeing many shots, but is making big saves when called upon. Joe Griffin, Mike Jesi, Jake Jesi, Nick Pease, Jeff Panella and Jake Giacchino take care of business from a defensive standpoint. Mike Castro’s 13 points lead a balanced scoring attack for a Masconomet team that has three solid lines and speed all over the place. The ability to win faceoffs has has proven huge and will continue to do so in the coming weeks.

Key upcoming games: Saturday vs. North Reading (3:10); Wednesday, Jan. 29 vs. Newburyport (7:50); Wednesday, Feb. 5 vs. Amesbury (8:10); Wednesday, Feb. 12 vs. Pentucket (7:50).

ST. JOHN’S PREP (5-5-1)

Analysis: A better team that their .500 record would suggest, that’s a by-product of once again playing one of the most demanding schedules in the state with a slew of first-year varsity players. Still, you can see progress and signs that there are more victories than setbacks in their future, provided the team continues to learn from its on-ice mistakes. Senior captain Jimmy Currier (23 points) is having an MVP-type season while guys like recently promoted captain Mark Etherington (13), Kyle Lynch (10) and defensemen Dylan Lemieux (6), Evan Leclerc (5) and Ean Mendeszoon (5) are also emerging. Still, the three-man goaltending situation must be resolved sooner than later, and with points at a premium the Eagles will need to play their best hockey of the season in the coming weeks to advance into March.

Key upcoming games: Saturday at Xaverian (6:30); Wednesday, Jan. 29 at Catholic Memorial (5); Saturday, Feb. 1 vs. Malden Catholic (noon); Saturday, Feb. 8 vs. Arlington Catholic (noon); Wednesday, Feb. 12 vs. St. John’s Shrewsbury (8).

DANVERS (5-7)

Analysis: The Falcons’ biggest problem is simple: they’re not scoring enough. Averaging just two goals a game isn’t going to cut it; they’re going to have to find a way to somehow, someway put the puck in the net. Wingers Robert Tibbetts (5 goals) and captain Matt Flynn (4) are the leading goal scorers, but they need help. Getting off to stronger starts out of the gate would work wonders for a club that has managed just seven first period goals. Injuries to a couple of regulars will make the job tougher, but it’s not impossible: finding cohesion in the forward lines and winning each shift they skate will start to turn the tide. Some advice: don’t turn down any shot opportunity if you’re wearing a Blue-and-White sweater. Throw the puck on goal, crash the net and outwork your opponents for rebounds; that’s how you’ll get those much-needed goals.

Key upcoming games: Tonight at Stoneham (6); Saturday vs. Beverly (1), Wednesday, Jan. 29 at Peabody (5:15), Saturday, Feb. 1 vs. Gloucester (2:50), Wednesday, Feb. 12 vs. Marblehead (5).

SALEM (3-5-1)

Analysis: Don’t laugh; if Brett Harring’s recent shoulder injury isn’t major and he can be back between the pipes for the majority of the second half, the Witches -- who still have a dozen games to play -- have a shot to get into the playoffs for the first time since current St. John’s Prep coach Kristian Hanson was behind their bench. There are certainly winnable games on Salem’s remaining ledger. The key will be the tougher contests; earning points against the Reveres, Swampscotts, Lynns and Lowells of the world will do wonders towards inching closer to the postseason. Matt Jalbert, Danny Heck, Sam Petri, Mike Gillis, et. al. need to keep producing offensively while the entire team must stay defensively responsible.

Key upcoming games: Saturday at Lynn (6:30); Wednesday, Jan. 29 at Swampscott (5); Saturday, Feb. 1 at East Boston (4:40); Wednesday, Feb. 12 at Rockport (8).

PEABODY (3-8-1)

Analysis: Head coach Mark Leonard could be right when he says “we have to be the best 3-win team in America at this point.” The Tanners have had five games they’ve led or tied in the third period, only to eventually fall short. The problem has been goal scoring, or more specifically timely goal scoring; when the Tanners really need to bury a marker, they haven’t been able to do it. Like Danvers, they’ve also struggled putting the puck home in the first period (only 4 all season). Following Monday’s surprising tie with a strong Lincoln-Sudbury club, Peabody now faces a monumental task of winning at least six of its last eight games, plus one tie, to qualify. Even if they get hot, their final two contests are home dates against Marshfield and Beverly, teams that are currently a combined 20-4-1. The resurgence of junior Stephen Ferrante in goal and continued strong play up front from Reed Foster, Mike Vadala and Derek Demild can only help.

Key upcoming games: Saturday vs. Gloucester (4); Wednesday, Jan. 29 vs. Danvers (5:15); Monday, Feb. 17 vs. Beverly (Carlin Cup, 2).

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A rarity in high school these days: seeing a player who not only prefers coming into the offensive zone on his off wing, but can do so with exceptional speed and awareness.

St. John’s Prep captain Jimmy Currier is a rare breed at this level in that he’s not only able to, but flourishes in doing so.

”I really like taking the puck down the right side,” said the 17-year-old from Middleton, a left-handed shot. “Even when I’m playing left wing (his regular position), I like to cut across the ice through the neutral zone and come down the right side.”

The reason, said Currier, is simple: it provides both comfort and options.

”I can come into the offensive zone strong on my forehand and do a lot more with the puck than if I’m carrying it down along the wall,” said Currier. “That way I can go hard to the net, dish it off to someone in the slot or a trailer, leave a drop pass for one of our D-men or take it wide. Even if I go to my backhand there, I can protect the puck or get it around the back of the net or pass it. I just like having all of those options.”

Currier said if his team gives the same effort they produced during last Saturday’s 4-2 setback to unbeaten B.C. High, they’ll be all right in the long run.

”A lot of our young guys are coming around and grasping the system,” he said. “All these new kids are starting to step up and they’ll have to play a big role (down the stretch). We’ll hopefully start finding the bounces and getting the puck to go in the net. We have to keep working hard, keep throwing pucks on net and get those dirty goals.”

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Last week, we mentioned the six games Danvers is playing this season that have ‘names’ attached to them (Oniontown Classic, Newburyport Bank Classic, etc.). Apparently there’s a seventh such contest being played tonight in Stoneham against the host Spartans: the inaugural Matt Smith Memorial Game.

Smith, a former referee who worked NCAA games (including Beanpots and the Frozen Four), was a member of the Danvers Fire Department and a Stoneham native resident who passed away in March 2012 at age 45 after a battle with cancer.

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Best wishes for a speedy recovery to good guy Gary Munzing, father of Beverly High senior defenseman Sean Munzing and brother of Beverly assistant coach Paul Munzing. Gary Munzing just had open heart quadruple bypass surgery, but is doing well and was already back at the rink Monday afternoon during the Panthers’ win over Westford Academy in Tyngsboro.

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Connor Irving could become Beverly High’s new all-time leading scorer as early as Saturday when the Panthers play host to Danvers at Salem State (1 p.m.). Irving, who leads the area in scoring with 30 points, has 171 career points, putting him one behind Roger LeBlanc Jr.’s BHS record of 172 points.

Irving is the only player in Beverly High history to produce more than 100 career assists; he’s at 107 and counting, to go along with 64 goals. He is also just 29 points away from becoming the first Orange-and-Black skater to join the ultra-exclusive group of North Shore players to hit 200 points for his high school hockey career. Only eight names currently reside on that list: Sean Sullivan of Saugus (237 points), Greg LeColst of Masconomet (233), Drew O’Connell of Triton (229), Mario Orlando (221) and Darrell Seppala (219), both of Gloucester; Andy LeColst, also of Masconomet (215), John Hanlon of Bishop Fenwick (206) and Mike Kelfer of St. John’s Prep (204).

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The Blue Line Report, a column on North Shore boys high school hockey, appears each Wednesday during the winter sports season. Phil Stacey is the sports editor of The Salem News. Contact him at pstacey@salemnews.com or 978-338-2650, and follow him on Twitter @PhilStacey_SN.

NORTHEASTERN CONFERENCE STANDINGS NEC NORTH Team League Overall Beverly 6-0-0 12-0-1 Winthrop 5-2-0 8-4-0 Marblehead 4-2-0 9-3-0 Danvers 3-3-0 5-7-0 Gloucester 1-6-0 2-7-2 Peabody 0-6-0 3-8-1 NEC SOUTH Team League Overall Lynn 6-0-1 8-2-1 Revere 3-2-1 6-3-2 Salem 2-3-1 3-5-1 Swampscott 0-6-1 1-10-1