Unbeaten Catholic Memorial wears down St. John's Prep
Wednesday, January, 30
By Phil Stacey
SALEM | The timing couldn't have been any more perfect.
Just as St. John's Prep hockey coach Kristian Hanson was asked the question that has befuddled hundreds of coaches and thousands of players over the last 20-plus years | just how do you beat Catholic Memorial? | two CM players passed by him in the hallway under the bowels of the Rockett Arena last night.
"I don't know | but these guys might," said Hanson, turning to the two Knights' players, who were headed upstairs for a post-game snack. "How about it, guys? What's the best way to beat you?"
The duo smiled at the first-year Eagles' head coach and continued on their way upstairs. They were smiles that seemed to say If we know, we're not saying.
Mighty Catholic Memorial came to Salem State for the first time in over two decades last night, armed with an unbeaten record and the state's No. 1 ranking. They did nothing to tarnish their reputation, methodically dispatching of the Eagles, 5-2.
"How do you beat us?" said legendary CM coach Bill Hanson, repeating the question posed to him. "Just play better than we do."
If there were ever a statement that was easier said than done, that's the one.
St. John's Prep (6-5-3) probably played well enough to beat 75 percent of the teams on their schedule last night. They took a 1-0 lead just 30 seconds into the game, came back to tie it up at 2-2 later in the first period (with winger Danny Haugh scoring both goals), and played relatively even with the mighty Knights for the better part of two full periods.
Their first line of Haugh, Christian Cowles and Colin Prior had their moments of on-ice dominance, and the fourth line of Mike Papagni, Chris O'Hare and freshman Colin Blackwell displayed some great energy shifts.
But there are reasons that set Catholic Memorial apart from everyone else in Massachusetts high school hockey | and it's not just because they have the temerity to wear uniforms modeled after the classic Montreal Canadiens jerseys (and pull it off quite nicely, to boot).
Here's a big one: they don't panic. Ever. They just stick to their game plan of moving their feet, cycling the puck down low and owning the neutral zone, and eventually things start turning in their favor.
The Knights (9-0-3) also feast on the smallest of mistakes made by their opponents. St. John's Prep made two such miscues, and they turned a tie game into a 4-2 CM lead less than a minute into the third period.
The first came when Justin DiRienzo was whistled off for cross checking at 11:49 of the second period for the game's first penalty. Exactly 11 seconds later, Mike Collins | the best player on the ice last night | snapped a beautiful goal high over the left shoulder of Prep goaltender Kyle Pettoruto (35 saves) from the left circle for his second goal of the night, making it 3-2.
Then, on the first shift of the third period, the Knights took away any momentum the hosts were looking to steal by pouncing on a turnover in the Prep zone. Peter Starrett immediately swatted a shot past Pettoruto for a two-goal lead.
By the time CM's Benjamin Murphy scored on a slapper from the left point with 51/2> minutes to play, fans were already streaming for the exits.
"They simply kill you if you make a mistake," lamented Kristian Hanson, whose team was outshot, 40-19. "The real killer was that goal early in the third; we needed to weather the storm at the start of that period, but couldn't."
Catholic Memorial does everything with such calmness | even their goal scoring celebrations are decidedly low-key | that it's as if they expect to always make the right play or decision.
A small microcosm of that is shown here. With his team fighting to get back in the game early in the third, the Prep's DiRienzo got the puck at center ice with a head of steam and only CM defenseman Garrett Noonan to beat. Without panicking, Noonan simply waited for DiRienzo to come into the zone and easily knocked the puck away at the blue line, causing an odd-man rush the other way.
A veteran of 32 years behind the Knights' bench, Bill Hanson also knows how to make in-game adjustments as well as anyone. So after the first period, he changed his team's forecheck to a 1-man aggressive check and had his wings force the hosts along the boards, making it difficult for St. John's to skate up the middle of the ice with the puck.
"We want to make it hard for other teams to play against us, and I think we certainly did that tonight," said Bill Hanson, talking with reporters before leaving for the long ride home to his home in Marion. For three years in the early 1990s, he called Salem home.
"People talk a lot about our offense," he added," but it's defense that we work on in practice first and foremost. We've got five very good players back there who are smart with | and without | the puck."
All is hardly lost for St. John's Prep, despite last night's outcome. They travel to Malden Saturday afternoon for their final Catholic Conference game, and a win could give them sole possession of second place in the league standings. Following that are six non-league games before the state playoffs | six games the Eagles are capable of running the table in.
"Our focus can't be what happened tonight; it has to be what we can do to move forward," Kristian Hanson said as his players filed out of their locker room behind him. "We've got to keep moving forward."
When you play Catholic Memorial, that's not an easy mindset to keep. But the reality is the Eagles could learn a lot from a loss like this | namely, they know now what it takes to beat the best high school hockey team in Massachusetts.
Whether or not they | or anyone else | can actually pull it off remains to be seen.
Phil Stacey is the sports editor of The Salem News. Contact him at email@example.com or by phone at 978-338-2650.