Tuesday, February 27, 2018

Pope Francis and St. John's (Shrewsbury) Prevail in Super 8 Play-in Games

By John McGuirk (@patsfan1313)

North Billerica, Mass. - Up until this past weekend, St. John's (Shrewsbury) had no clue as to what its postseason course would be. The Pioneers went to the the MIAA Super 8 tournament seeding meeting last Saturday unsure if they did enough to earn a spot in the state's most prestigious high school hockey tournament, or if they would be cast off to the Division 1 tournament.

St. John's clung to the belief that its regular season resume was enough to get in, and the MIAA selection committee felt the same, awarding the Pioneers a Super 8 play-in game on Monday night. With opportunity now in its grasp, St. John's did not disappoint, as it blanked St. Mary's (Lynn) 3-0 inside Chelmsford Forum. Seeded eighth, the Pioneers (14-6-3) move on to play No. 1 Central Catholic (21-1) Thursday at Lowell's Tsongas Arena at a time still to be determined.

The last time the Pioneers were in the Super 8 was back in 2012, when they finished 0-3.

This season St. John's faced six teams that qualified for this year's Super 8 tournament. No doubt the upgrade in scheduling proved to be a benefactor on the Pioneers' behalf when it came time for the committee to select in final list of participants.

"It is a very exciting win obviously," said St. John's coach Mike Mead, now in his fifth season. We haven't been in the playoffs in five years (as a Division 1 entree in 2013) so to get into this tournament and perform this well is a great opportunity for our boys."

Sparked by pair of first period goals, St. John's continued to push back the ninth-seeded Spartans. In the process, they were able to survive a ferocious third period flurry by their counterparts due mostly to the yeoman-like effort of its goaltender Corey Splaine, who finished with 32 saves, including 12 during the final 15 minutes. The senior dodge bullet after bullet in the final frame as St. Mary's put forward its best offensive attack of the evening.

"Corey kept us in it tonight," Mead said. "It was a nice shutout by him. We knew St. Mary's would be aggressive. As the defending Division 1 champions we knew they were not going down without a fight. They battled hard right to the end."

After turning aside a couple of Spartan scoring chances early, Splaine watched his teammates come through for him down at the other end of the ice. At 8:53 of the contest, Nick Palermo, left all alone, took a nice cross feed from Dhillon Wilde between the two circles and fired a howitzer past Kevin McMullen for a 1-0 lead.

Just four minutes later, while St. Mary's continued to have difficulty navigating the puck through traffic, allowed St. John's to set up its second tally. Tim Farley, positioned just to the left of McMullen, took a pass from Wilde and slid a shot between the senior netminder's pads giving the Pioneers a two goal advantage heading into the first intermission.

"We had some opportunities early but couldn't cash in and I think that got us a little frustrated early on," said Spartans coach Mark Lee, who will now prepare his team for the Division 1 tournament which they won last season. "Their goalie came up with some very big stops throughout the game. We had two breakdowns in that first period which cost two goals. After the first period we were very confident that we would have the ability to comeback. But we just couldn't get anything going. We felt if we could score one then maybe the floodgates might open but it just didn't happen."

For the Spartans (12-7-4), their ability to create space proved limited as the Pioneers were doing a nice job of trapping them inside the neutral zone and defensive zone. Despite putting up 13 shots in the middle period, most came from out along the perimeter as St. John's took away the low slot area. Coming out for the third, St. Mary's finally got its wake up call.

The Spartans continued to rush the puck up ice along the boards and angle their way towards Splaine. Several quality attempts were turned aside which only added to the Spartans' frustration. In the closing minutes, McMullen was pulled for the extra attacker. However, a turnover by St. Mary's just along the attacking blue line resulted in Alex Elias sliding in an empty net goal to finish this one off.

"I come into every game with the same mentality," said Splaine. "Our defense stayed really composed tonight and didn't just run around in our zone. I was able to see the puck well tonight. Our defense also did a great job of clearing things out when they tried to close in. Coming into the postseason we felt very comfortable even though we knew that none of us had ever played in this type of situation before."

Pope Francis tops Arlington

When the final horn sounded, all the talk about seedings came to a screeching halt inside the Pope Francis locker room. Following a weekend's worth of drama, in which the Cardinals were handed the 10th and final seed of the Super 8 tournament for fracturing MIAA Rule 29.3 which states "student or teams that have gained court injunctions forcing their entry into MIAA tournaments will be seeded last.'' Had the situation never occurred, Pope Francis would have most-likely been given a third seed.

Nevertheless, the Cardinals had no choice but to take their medicine and prepare themselves for Monday's play-in game versus No. 7 Arlington. Certainly with something to prove, Pope Francis did just that as it easily shutout the defending Super 8 champs 3-0 at Chelmsford Forum. The Cardinals (17-3-3) will now take on No. 2 BC High (15-4-1) Thursday at Tsongas Arena at a time still to be determined. Back on February 4th, the Eagles defeated the Cardinals 4-1.

Looking a bit sluggish early on, Pope Francis was having its share of problems trying to distribute the puck as the Spy Ponders (12-6-4) did an admirable job of setting up a virtual wall from center ice to the defensive blue line in an effort to slow the potent Cardinals down. But midway through the opening period, the Pope Francis would catch a break. Playing short-handed, a turnover would lead to Tyler Wilson burying a shot from the high slot past Arlington goalie Jack Pinard.

The score seemed to breath life into the Cardinals as they rode the crest of that tally for the remainder of this tilt.

"We definitely came out a little slow to begin that first period," said Pope Francis coach Brian Foley. "Tyler made a great shot and Max Cocchi did a good job going to the net and providing a bit of a screen. Every Super 8 first round game or play-in game, it always seems that the first period is tough to get through cleanly but fortunately we were able to get through it with a 1-0 lead."

Clinging to its one goal lead halfway into the middle frame, Pope Francis senior Brendan Nehmer, off a turnover from behind the Spy Ponders net, used his speed in maneuvering a nice wraparound goal catching Pinard off-guard for a 2-0 lead.

"We couldn't let the seeding get to us," Nehmer said. "We knew that we deserved to be here and it wasn't going to stop us from coming out here and working hard. We wanted to come here tonight and give it our all and I definitely think we did that, especially in the second and third periods. We got off to a slow start but managed to push it out of the way and fought hard right to the end. I thought Tyler's goal really got us going. He's a great player and you can always count on him for coming up with a big goal."

The Cardinals put up 13 shots in the middle frame while holding Arlington to just four.

"We started to take it to them in the second period and we had some pretty good energy out there," Foley said. "I thought for the rest of the game our kids played really hard. When they had to block shots in the defensive zone they were committed to doing it."

Three minutes after Nehmer's marker, the Cardinals, now on the powerplay, would add to their total. Makem Demers, left untouched, came charging in towards the crease area from the right point. Taking a crisp backdoor pass from Jon Tavella, the junior capped it off by flipping a shot under the crossbar and push the advantage out to three. Pope Francis spent the remainder of the second and all of the third period sticking to a prescribe defensive strategy of not allowing the Spy Ponders to gain any late momentum. Seldom used Pope Francis goalie Ben Zaranek, a freshman, stopped all 19 shots he face between the pipes. Pinard, who also played well, finished with 27 saves.

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