Sunday, January 21, 2018

Pope Francis too Much for Andover Late


By John McGuirk (@patsfan1313)

West Springfield, Mass.
- Over the course of the first period and some change, Andover continued to fight the good fight and stay within arm's reach of Pope Francis. But, midway through the middle frame and beyond, the Cardinals' maturity and experience would take over.

Netting three unanswered goals during the final 20 minutes, Pope Francis finally broke free to secure a 4-1 triumph Saturday at the Olympia Ice Center.

It took a little while before the Cardinals (10-1-2) began to develop some synergy and pull away from the gritty Golden Warriors. After being bottled up inside the neutral zone for much of the opening period and part of the second, the Cardinals (5-0-2 in their last seven games) reverted back to their fleet-footed skating style and quickness as a retort to Andover's defensive presence.

"I thought as a team our defensemen kept things simple, especially during the second half of the game," said Cardinals head coach Brian Foley. "I really thought that we played our best hockey of the year during that span. Our defensemen were getting the puck up to the forwards and we were able to play a lot down at their end. Andover is a very good team and we knew it was going to be a battle. But from a consistency standpoint, I felt this was our best 45 minute effort of the season so far."

Able to switch on on the afterburners, that, in turn, resulted in Pope Francis being able to create enough spacing inside the offensive zone and allow them to grab control of this tilt and leave the Golden Warriors (6-3-1) in its wake.

With the contest deadlocked at 1-1, and still more than 10 minutes remaining in the second period, the Cardinals appeared to shift their game into overdrive.

At 10:19, senior Brendan Nehmer sent a hard wrist shot, from inside the right circle, through traffic that was redirected by Makem Demers and past goaltender Cole Chingris to make it 2-1. A little more than two minutes later, Max Cocchi darted in on a breakaway. The junior's shot was initially stopped by Chingris however, Andover senior Caeden Dillman inadvertently poked the rebound into the back of the net to push Pope Francis' lead out to two scores heading into the final frame.

"Unfortunately, when we got scored on twice in the period we kind of went down a little bit," Golden Warriors head coach Chris Kuchar said. "I don't feel we gave (Pope Francis) our best effort today."

Coming out for the third, the Cardinals remained in control as they sent 20 shots in Chingris' direction. At 7:34, they were able to seize their opportunity as Nehmer, left alone in front of the crease, slipped a backhand shot past the junior netminder to account for the three goal margin of victory.

For the game, Pope Francis out-shot Andover 45-18. Had it not been for the stellar netminding of Chingris (41 saves), the outcome could have been much worse.

The Cardinals, ranked second in the state, jumped ahead early. Just 2:41 in, Nehmer, taking a backdoor feed from Demers, roofed a shot by Chingris for a 1-0 advantage.

For Nehmer, arguably the best forward in the Commonwealth, he now has 22 goals on the season, and is part of a lethal first line that also includes Demers (11 goals) and Cocchi (8).

"Our line definitely clicks," Nehmer said. "Max and I have been playing together since we were five years old. There has always been a chemistry there. Makem is also a great player and fits in well. He is fast and moves the puck extremely well. I think for us, as a team moving forward, we still need to play better on defense and we need to work on our discipline. We cannot afford to take dumb penalties because those will kill us. As a team we don't want to settle for anything less than what we know we are capable of."

This particular Pope Francis squad is not your big brother's team of the past few years. Just three years ago, this powerhouse, which then played under the banner of Cathedral High School, had six players receive Division 1 college hockey scholarships. The Panthers, as was their nickname at the time, were the heavy favorites going into the 2015 Super 8 tournament, only to see them lose an overtime slugfest versus St. John's Prep in the semifinal round. Being the only Division 1 program situated in Western Mass., Cathedral and now Pope Francis has turned itself into a yearly fixture in the Super 8 tournament. This year should be no different.

"This particular team has really good depth," Foley said. "We skate four lines, play 8 defensemen and have very good goaltending. We are pretty solid in all three positions. If we can continue to work together as a team and play the kind of defense like we played today, that'll be the key for us moving forward."

This year's team is not littered with an abundance of star talent. With the exception of Nehmer, the Cardinals are a club that is primarily made up of role players. This group, unlike its predecessors, have to grind and battle throughout every shift in order to obtain success. So far, it has worked out quite nicely.

Holding onto its one goal lead after the first 15 minutes, Pope Francis got a bit careless early in the middle period. With Cardinal defenseman Joey Salvon sitting in the penalty box for hooking, Andover, skating five freshmen, capitalized on the man-advantage chance. Swarming the Pope Francis net, Steve Ingram managed to push back a rebound, off an initial shot from Jake LaChance, to knot things at 1-1. But the Golden Warriors would fall silent for the remainder as Pope Francis freshman goalie Ben Zaranek held them scoreless the rest of the way through. 

"When we came back to tie it we had a little life on our bench," said Kuchar. "But then we made some bad choices. We had prepared for them all week long but unfortunately we had some kids who weren't listening to the game plan. The next thing you know we are playing back on our heels. Pope Francis is a very good hockey team and I wish we had given them a better game. When we did cycle the puck I thought we had some chances. But when we did get the puck behind their goal line we weren't getting many opportunities. We just didn't play smart hockey today and we cost ourselves because of it."

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