Sunday, February 18, 2018

St. John's Prep Hockey Pulls Away from St. John's (Shrewsbury)

By John McGuirk (@patsfan1313)

Middleton, Mass. - The similarities are striking.

Revert back to the 2015 season- St. John's Prep was firing on all cylinders down the stretch, which would eventually land the Eagles their first Super 8 championship. Lo and behold, St. John's Prep is acting out a comparable performance again this season.

Following Saturday night's 5-2 triumph over St. John's (Shrewsbury) at the Essex Sports Center, the Eagles are now 6-0-2 in their last eight games. Certainly one of the hottest teams at the moment, it would not be wise to sleep on the Eagles anytime soon. That includes next month's Super 8 tournament, in which they should be a lock.

"At this time of the year you need to be playing your best hockey," said St. John's Prep head coach Kristian Hanson. "During the second half of the season we have been fortunate to get some solid efforts from a lot of guys. We knew tonight's game would carry a lot of importance because I feel (St. John's) will be a Super 8 team too. We know that we have to compete directly with them when it comes to seedings in the tournament."

All throughout the final half of the season, St. John's Prep (12-3-3) has depended heavily on its ability to turn up ice quickly, find the open man and capitalize on other team's turnovers. All were present against the Pioneers.

"We have talked a lot about our team speed and how we try to utilize that in our game," Hanson said. "It's just a mindset where we want to go north to south with the puck. Earlier in the the season it was more east to west. We are starting to finally figure that out. A lot of frustration early in the year has led to some awakenings now. It has been rewarding to finally see us using our skills."

Over the first 10 minutes, the Eagles continued to fluster St. John's (12-5-3) inside its own zone. The Pioneers were constantly finding themselves unable to clear the puck away from their own zone. That, in turn, would directly lead to its first goal. Just 3:02 in, sophomore Brian Carrabes stole the puck at the Pioneers blue line, skated in alone on St. John's goaltender Corey Splaine before beating the senior with a hard wrist shot for a 1-0 lead.

The Eagles continued their relentless attack, using speed as their key weapon. However, Splaine (31 saves), despite the lack of support he was receiving from his defense, continued in his quest to right the ship, making several quality stops for the remainder of the period and keep his team in the hunt.

Finally able to settle down a bit, the Pioneers started to find their legs and create some spacing in open ice. Adapting to the Eagles' speed, a give and go from Nick Palermo to sophomore Dhillon Wilde resulted in Wilde lifting a shot past Cam Ludwig, at 7:54 of the period, to square things at 1-1.

With time winding down in the frame, both teams were beginning to play at a relatively even keel. However, with three minutes left, St. John's, another club with legitimate Super 8 aspirations, got a little complacent inside its zone. That was all St. John's Prep Mike Sacco needed. Controlling the puck from behind the Pioneers net, the sophomore floated a lead pass to Zach McKenelley, who was skating in alone toward the crease. The freshman ripped a one-timer beyond the outstretched glove of Splaine to send the Eagles into the first intermission on top 2-1.

Both teams began the middle period playing a back and forth style before St. John's Prep, yet again, forced the Pioneers into committing another costly miscue. At 5:09, Sacco intercepted the puck inside the neutral zone, shifted past a St. John's defender and pushed a shot short side through a tight window to give the Eagles a 3-1 lead. A few moments later, St. John's Prep had a chance to break this thing wide open after being handed back-to-back powerplay chances. But the Eagles could not convert with the man-advantage and headed for the locker room holding down their two goal lead.

"When you make mistakes against a top team like that you are going to pay the penalty," said Pioneers coach Mike Mead. "Turnovers hurt us tonight. Face-offs also hurt us early on. At the beginning, we couldn't get the puck out of our zone. We also need to do a better job defensively and with our puck decision. If we want to play (in the Super 8 tournament) we need to play better. We are on the bubble now in terms of getting in because of tonight. Now our kids need to find it next week in the (Newburyport Bank Ice Hockey Classic). We open up against Andover (on Tuesday) which is another team on the watch list. Right now, that is our next challenge."

Right wing Matty Tighe wasted no time getting the third period off with a flourish for the Eagles. At 2:40, the senior took a nice feed from Carrabes down low and slipped the puck between Splaine's pads, upping the advantage to 4-1.

"We have always been a second half team," Tighe said. "We feel we are getting hot at the right time. I feel as though we are really starting to click offensively which is huge heading into the Super 8. The biggest thing for us the rest the way is for us to continue to work hard all the time and hopefully will ourselves to a championship."

Just a handful of seconds following the score, St. John's Prep senior Tim Usalis received a 10 minute unsportsmanlike penalty putting the Pioneers on the powerplay. It took just 24 seconds for St. John's to climb back into this contest. Wilde's wrist shot, in front of the crease, found enough space to get by Ludwig, who finished with 18 saves, for the his second marker of the evening.

With still ample time remaining for the Pioneers to rally back, the Eagles would have none of it. St. John's Prep picked up the pace on the defensive end, taking away passing lanes, blocking shots and denying any odd-man rush opportunities. With Splaine pulled in the final minute, another flub of the puck by St. John's resulted in Tighe sliding in an empty net score with 43 second to go to put a capper on this one.

"The better team won tonight," Mead said. "Their team speed and their ability to jump on the forecheck intimidated our defense. In the end we were trying to win this game so I had to pull the goalie at that point. But they ended up getting the empty-netter in that situation. That's just part of the game. As for us, we will let other people decide what tournament we play in. But if you look at our five losses this season, they are all against teams in the Top 5. So we'll see what happens."

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