Boston High School: Kevin Howard

BUZZARDS BAY, Mass. – It seemed like an add-on to a rout, but Kyle Leslie’s early third-period goal — the Braintree forward’s second of the game — was an important one.

But, at the time, its significance wasn’t lost on Wamps head coach Dave Fasano either.

“Looking back on it, I had said that’s probably the one that’s going to get us over the hump.”

Braintree carried a 4-1 lead into the third period of Sunday’s Division 1 South sectional championship game against Barnstable at Gallo Ice Arena.

That’s when Leslie tipped in his second of the game, collecting a loose puck played from the point by defenseman Kevin Howard. After a furious comeback of three straight goals, including two on the power play, the Red Raiders made for a dramatic finish, but fell short in a 5-4 final.

The Wamps advance to their first state Division 1 final, after having played in three sectional championship games in the last decade. They will face the winner of Monday’s North final between Reading and Wilmington.

Braintree (16-5-3) sought to push the issue, playing an aggressive forecheck throughout. It yielded immediate benefits, as the Wamps ran out to a 2-0 lead by the 7:43 mark of the first on goals by Gino LaRossa and Brian Gallagher. Leslie (2 G, 1 A) potted his first goal of the game before the period was out, with a helper from Gallagher, and Braintree took a 3-0 lead to the room.

The Red Raiders (15-6-3) broke up Nick Anson’s shutout bid at 1:32 of the second on a Cody Pasic (1 G, 1 A) wrist shot. However, the Wamps reestablished their three-goal cushion at 8:11 on a Nick Ward goal, with Gallagher (1G, 2A) on the primary assist.

“The thing we talked about after the third period was that we couldn’t go into a shell,” Fasano said. “Barnstable, all year long and if you saw the last three tournament games they’ve played … they don’t quit. They’re going to come at us, but we can’t go into a shell.

“Even when we were up three, we knew that Barnstable was going to throw everything at us because they’ve never quit all year long.”

Braintree seemed to put the game out of reach 32 seconds into the third. Howard lobbed a wrister over the diving shot-blocking attempt of a Barnstable forward. With the puck in the slot, Leslie adjusted and beat Red Raiders back up goaltender Jake Kaczynski short side.

Then the Red Raiders came alive. Mike McDonough set off a chain reaction of three straight Barnstable goals at 2:48, before scoring back-to-back power-play goals 11:21 and 12:24. Chris Fowler’s slapper got the Red Raiders within two, before setting up Cam Curtin’s tally on the man-advantage with the goaltender pulled.

“I thought we played extremely well for two periods, but our start killed us," Red Raiders head coach Scott Nickerson said. "We just ran out of time. They did a lot of things well against us. It would have been a remarkable comeback had we finished it off.”

Tough call: Nickerson elected to pull senior starting goaltender Kevin Huska to start the second period, after allowing three first-period goals, in favor of Kaczynski, a junior.

“Kevin Huska’s been our backbone for two years,” Nickerson said. “At that point, I felt like after giving up three, it was time to make a change. It’s a tough decision to pull a senior in his last game. But it was something we had to do.”

The move seemed to give Barnstable an immediate boost. After Pasic’s goal, on the other end of the sheet, Kaczynski kicked out a Gallagher shot from point blank range.

The incumbent to take Huska’s spot next season, Kaczynski battled to keep the Red Raiders in the game, which was also a swan song for one of the state’s more talented netminders in the last two years.

“To his credit, I’ve never been around who’s so positive and so uplifting after he comes out,” Nickerson said of Huska. “When Kaczynski made that save, you could hear Kevin pounding on the boards with his hand, trying to keep everybody going.”

Net gain?: Aside from having to refocus after its play-in game loss to Catholic Memorial, Braintree also had to face the South sectional tournament without the services of one of its top defensemen, junior Sean Casey, who was injured in the preliminary round game.

With that, Fasano has shortened his bench to five defenseman.

But even down a man, and an attempted third-period comeback aside, the Wamps defensive corps has been a major driving force behind their Garden push.

“That was a huge loss, he’s so good,” senior captain Joe Harrington said of Casey. “But our defenseman, no discredit to our forwards, we’ve been great defensively all year. John Elworthy’s really stepped in, Erik MacDonald’s given us good minutes, and [James] Flaherty and Howard have been doing it for a few years now. We just know it’s another day at the office for us.”

Week 1 hockey tournament notes and picks

February, 28, 2014
Feb 28
Here are some thoughts from the first week or so of the high school hockey tournaments.

This will be the first of four installments I plan to bring you through and at the conclusion of the tournaments. I’ll also be bringing you my weekend picks on some of that week’s most anticipated matchups:

Optimism through disappointment: By this point, you’ve likely seen and formulated a definitive opinion on the controversial “no goal” call during Monday’s Super 8 play-in game between Braintree and Catholic Memorial. While the Wamps have to be letdown by the turn of events earlier this week, Braintree can still embark on a championship quest of a different kind.

The Wamps, now the No. 1 seed in the Division 1 South tournament following their Super 8 exit, open sectional play Saturday against No. 8 seed Falmouth. It’s always interesting to watch how teams who are jettisoned from the Super 8 play-ins are able to readjust after falling short of an ultimate goal.

However, I think there’s hope for both Braintree and Archbishop Williams – which was also dealt a crushing blow in a double-overtime classic in its play-in tilt against Xaverian – and they might just cross paths down the line.

Undoubtedly, the Wamps played their best hockey of the season in its final month. They played their way into the Top 10 with wins over Super 8 No. 6 seed Duxbury and on the final day of the regular season against CM. I liked what I saw from a steady defensive corps, led by Joe Harrington and Kevin Howard, and Nick Anson has been a reliable presence in net.

For the Bishops, I don’t think there are many teams – statewide – that can match their depth and offensive skill of their top six forwards, in addition to Ryan Dunn’s emergence as a legitimate All-State candidate in the late season. Head coach Derackk Curtis characterized Steve Jenner as a “hot and cold” goaltender earlier this year, but in the final weeks of the season, Jenner has become a dependable puck-stopper.

If both teams can refocus quickly, I’d expect them to meet up at Gallo for the D1 South championship game.

A nod to a great: Think about some of the most famous headwear in sports history -- Tom Landry’s legendary fedora, Trot Nixon’s pine tar-stained hat, Craig MacTavish’s noteworthy lack of a bucket and compensation with some serious flow on top -- among those, in local hockey circles, the late Ed Burns' own fedora has to be included.

The Arlington hockey coaching legend died earlier this month and, as a nod to his mentor, Spy Ponders head coach John Messuri sported Burns’ trademark hat behind the bench during their surprising 1-0 win over Catholic Conference power St. John’s Prep. While Messuri paid homage to Burns’ legacy, the Spy Ponders honored it with their performance, playing their tough-minded brand of defensive hockey, buttressed with the unusual in-game tandem goalie rotation of Ryan Cote and Mike Schiller.

It marked a bumper crop of wins for the Middlesex League on Wednesday, which was a combined 5-1. Surprisingly, the one team to lose on the night was two-time defending Division 1 state champion Burlington, which was shut out by St. John’s of Shrewsbury.

Three Stars of the Week:

3. Sam D’Antuono, Jr. F, Dexter – The former Hingham Harborman put his team on his back during the third period of their 3-2 comeback win over Canterbury School in the first round of the NEPSAC Piatelli/Simmons tournament. D’Antuono scored the tying goal, before netting his second with the game-winner, all in the third period.

2. Al Lynch, Sr. G, Framingham – The Flyers’ netminder earned his first career playoff win with a 42-save performance in a 5-2 win over defending Division 1 South champion Marshfield on Wednesday.

1. Joe Marella, Sr. F, Abington – Marella single-handedly put a hurting on Division 3 South No. 1 seed Cape Cod Tech, scoring six goals in the Green Wave’s 7-1 thrashing Wednesday at Gallo.

This weekend’s picks du jour:

(Note: I’ll have full Super 8 breakdown and picks later this weekend.)

D1 North boys: ST. MARY’S over Winchester; MELROSE over Reading; ST. JOHN’S (SHREWSBURY) over Arlington; WILMINGTON over Medford.

D1 South boys: BRAINTREE over Falmouth; FRAMINGHAM over Franklin; ARCHBISHOP WILLIAMS over Norwood; BARNSTABLE over Milton.

D2 North boys: BEVERLY over Danvers; LINCOLN-SUDBURY over Winthrop.

D2 South boys: CANTON over Medway.

D1 girls: READING over Austin Prep.

Bracket-buster upset special: D2 boys – OLIVER AMES over Westwood.

Super 8 play-in: CM 2, Braintree 1

February, 25, 2014
Feb 25

STONEHAM, Mass. – It was so familiar yet so different.

Last year, it was Malden Catholic back-stepping into the Division 1A tournament as a 10-seed and using its play-in win to jump start a third straight title run.

Last night, it was a previously free-falling Catholic Memorial squad that plugged the holes, righted the ship, and came back to defeat Braintree 2-1 at an overflow Stoneham Arena to advance to a first-round series against the aforementioned Lancers.

Knights captain Aaron Clancy played up to the moment, scoring a pair of goals less than three minutes apart in the third period to power CM into the Super 8.

“It was a quality win over a quality opponent,” Catholic Memorial coach Bill Hanson said. “We finally played the system we should be playing, and we got great goaltending.”

The Knights fell flat on their facemasks in the first period, but Brandon Collett carried them through it. The sophomore goaltender, celebrating his 16th birthday Monday, let a Wamp goal past him but locked down and stopped six shots in the period. Collett stopped 14 Braintree shots in total.

“Kid stood on his head,” Clancy said of Collett. “Without him we wouldn't be here. He's peaking at the right time, and that's all you need in playoff hockey.”

The Wamps came out guns blazing in the first period. Kevin Howard put Braintree up late in the period when his shot from the point deflected off a body and went in. Braintree used the body early and often to dictate tempo and looked as if it would turn the game into a replay of Friday's 3-0 win over the Knights.

However, CM streamlined its strategy in the final two periods and were able to turn the tide, in all facets of the game, on the Wamps. Braintree outshot CM 7-1 in the first but was outshot 18-8 during the final two periods.

“I thought in the first period we had a jump in our step, I thought we were playing well,” Braintree coach David Fasano said. “For some reason, the second period we did too much standing around; we were on our heels a little bit. Against a good team like CM you've got to go at them, force them to make mistakes.”

As the game progressed CM chipped pucks deep and forced Braintree to play a 200-foot possession, and the Knights were able to slop up the middle of the ice enough to break up the Wamps' passes. Braintree's physical, crisp game of the first period was unable to thrive once CM adjusted.

“They were great in the neutral zone and we adjusted by coming back a little deeper, getting the red line, and playing dirty, ugly hockey,” Hanson said.

“We stepped up our physical presence. We actually simplified what we did the second and third period. All's we wanted to was get the red line, try to take center ice away, and then get it in and make us play with their backs to us.”

CONTROVERSY: The game's most memorable moment was a disallowed Braintree goal in the first period that will be dissected for the rest of the tournament.

Wamps forward Brian Gallagher sliced through the CM defense and roofed a shot over Collett. The goal light went on, the Wamps celebrated, and the Knights looked to regroup. However the referee, who was just to the right of Collett waved the goal off.

After a meeting with the other officials, followed by a meeting with the goal judge, the call stood.

STILL POTENTIAL GLORY: The silver lining in Braintree's loss is that the Wamps are still playing hockey. Braintree will slot into the top seed in Division 1 South and will face either Falmouth or Walpole this weekend in the sectional quarterfinal.

Fasano said that tough odds were a manageable task for his team.

“These guys have responded all year,” Fasano said. “We lost opening night. We were 5-4-1 at one time and weren't sure what way we were going to go. We had a nice team meeting and we decided to go the right way. They've battled through some adversity.”

The Wamps will enter a wide-open South bracket that includes Marshfield on their side and possible opponents Archbishop Williams and Barnstable on the other side.

“Our guys got to keep their heads up, and hopefully we can make a run at in the Division 1 tournament,” Fasano said. “I think we've got enough talent to make a serious run. We didn't do any shame out here tonight. We'll be back at it.”