Having lost nine players from last year's state championship team, there were those believing the Shrewsbury hockey team would find the road to another state title a lot more difficult to navigate this time around.
Obviously, it is still too early to predict what will happen once the Division 3 postseason party begins later this month, but for those pessimists out there, don't sleep on the Colonials.
Ever since head coach Steve Turnblom took over the program five years ago, Shrewsbury has played under a calculated system which centers around speed, passing, puck movement and team defense. Players come and go, but the structure remains the same. It is a system that worked brilliantly a year ago and it appears to be excelling once again this season as Shrewsbury currently holds down a 12-2-0 record.
Once the dust settled following last year's celebration inside TD Garden, Shrewsbury quickly turned its attention to this season. Major components from last year's successful run, including Dave Belbin, Sean Hallice and forward Matt Dillon, departed. Belbin and Hallice both graduated and are now playing junior hockey, while Dillon transferred to Cushing Academy.
But there was no panic. Shrewsbury knew what it was coming back in terms of front line scorers. Where the concerned lied was on the defensive side.
"We lost a lot of our defense but most of our forwards were back," said Turnblom. "The chemistry up front from the get-go was there but defensively, it has been a struggle. We're not as good defensively as we were a year ago. We've had some injuries on that side and now we are looking for other kids to step up. We do know that every defensemen from this year's team will be back next year, other than Jack Quinlivan, so that's a plus."
The Colonials are still deep enough to replace old parts with new ones. Shrewsbury has done that rather successfully with the additions of defensemen Joe Walton (sophomore) and Conall Perichino (freshman). But it was also important to add another veteran, along with Quinlivan, to anchor this young defensive corps. Therefore Turnblom decided to move senior forward Tyler O'Keefe, a prominent scorer, into the defensive zone.
Even with O'Keefe pulled back, it hasn't affected Shrewsbury from dominating the competition this season. Stockpiled with a host of skilled snipers, all have proven quite capable of putting the puck into the net from any spot within the offensive zone. That, according to Turnblom, has irked some opposing coaches who claim the Colonials have been piling it on by leaving their top players out on the ice until the final horn sounds.
But don't expect an apology from Turnblom anytime soon. He states that it is up to opposing teams to try and stop his instead of complaining no matter which line he puts out there. Others have criticized the ease of the Colonials' schedule. Mind you, Shrewsbury has limited control over who it plays. Like most teams, they submit a list of teams they would like to play but the final decision rests with schedule makers.
It just so happens that Central Mass. hockey across the board is in the midst of a down year with no one close to Shrewsbury's talent. Even inside its own conference (Quinn), regarded by most as the strongest in the region, the rest of field has been a bit down.
"Ever since I made the team as a sophomore, I felt the competition was good," senior forward Joe Buduo said. "No matter who we play, I have always gone out and given my A-game. I still do but I think this year our team is just that more dominant as compared to the other teams we play in Central Mass."
So the odds seemed stacked in Shrewsbury's favor at least to compete for a second consecutive state crown.
"Looking around our locker room we do have a lot of new faces," said Quinlivan, who leads the team with 13 goals and 20 assists. "But all of them are hungry. We also have the leadership and experience back from last year as well. The energy we have gotten from the younger guys has boosted the older guys. All of us are very excited about this team. I do think we will get back to the state finals if everything continues to go our way.
“The key is to go into the postseason staying hot. Every team that has won a championship seems to enter the postseason with a hot hand. Hopefully we will do the same."
Adds O'Keefe, "We have seen different guys, both young and old, step up all season. All of us want to get back to the Garden and bring another state championship back to our school. It is something we have worked for our whole lives."
Having already played in one state championship, the Colonials believe they have a decided edge should they run the table and return to the Garden next month.
"Last year was an amazing experience for everyone," says Shane Flaherty, a senior forward. "If we do get back there at least we know what to expect and won't be as nervous this time because most of us have already experienced it."
Once the playoffs start, Shrewsbury knows full well that a mistake here or there could spoil its championship dreams. With each passing day, they are constantly reminded of that by their coaches.
"The only way we are going to lose is if we beat ourselves," assistant coach Joe Joubert said. "It's that simple. If we don't show up to play in the playoffs then we will be going home early."
A couple weeks ago, Shrewsbury took a trip to take on perennial power Springfield Cathedral — a traditional Super 8 Tournament entree. It was an opportunity for Turnblom to see how his team would measure up against one of the state's elite programs. Although the Colonials were manhandled by the Panthers, 9-1, Shrewsbury still managed to take away some positives from the encounter.
The Colonials know they will not see anything like Cathedral's caliber in the postseason. The speed, endurance, physicality and talent put forth by Panthers is not witnessed at the Division 3 level. But the Colonials were not intimidated, matching Cathedral's physicality and intensity throughout.
Collectively, this group seems more like a band of brothers instead of a hockey team. Individual statistics and the amount of playing time one gets are never uttered. The Colonials play as a solitary unit with a single goal in mind.
"There hasn't been one person in our locker room saying I have more points than you or anything like that," senior goaltender Chris Shelby said. "It's not like that here. Everything and everyone here is team-orientated, positive and focused on what we need to do."
Senior Brayden Carroll agrees. "The one thing I'll take away from my experience here is that we play for each of our teammates," he said. "All of us have high respect for one another."
For most of the seniors on this club, this season will be their last hurrah. Some may continue their hockey careers at the prep school, college or junior level, but for others, there is only a handful of weeks remaining in their careers. The objective is for them to go out with a bang.
"Winning two straight state championships would be awesome," senior Dan Quinlivan said. "But as a senior class I believe we are leaving this program in better shape then when we all came in together. When we came in as freshmen, hockey wasn't the main thing here. Now, I feel we are a hockey school. I think all of us have had a hand in changing the culture here. Hockey is the main focus here and everyone is geared toward winning another title.
“This is probably my most favorite team I've ever been on because everyone here has their priorities straight -- family, school and hockey in that order. I don't think anyone on this team would want to play anywhere else."
Priorities resonate high on this team's agenda. Turnblom and his staff understand life does not revolve around hockey. But for those who play it here, there are certain requirements that need to be followed to wear the Colonials' uniform.
"You are expected to do all of your school work, maintain good grades, come to practice every day and work as hard as you can," said assistant coach Rich Grant, and former head coach at Nashoba Regional. "On top of that, for at least 20 times a year, we are asking for everyone's best effort. We know we are a team with a target on our backs.”
He added, “This group has consistently given us their best effort. From tryouts up until now all of these kids have carried that load of responsibility with class and dignity. We aren't here to disrespect or embarrass other teams. We go out, try to score goals, celebrate and go about our business like gentlemen. It says a lot on how Coach Turnblom runs the show here. All of these guys have done an outstanding job of not only being good guys in the rink but off the ice as well."