WILMINGTON, Mass. – Fitting of the rematch to a championship game, Ristuccia Arena was packed to capacity for Friday night’s bout between last year’s Super 8 finalists, Malden Catholic and St. John’s Prep.
While the teams didn’t need overtime to find a victory this time around, the 1,100 in attendance were captivated through three periods as the top-ranked Lancers again got the better of their Catholic Conference rivals, 5-3.
Sure, the teams looked a lot different, but the same conclusion could be drawn from both games. MC (6-1-1, 3-0-0) looked to be a just a tad faster, a bit sharper and, in the end, able to execute more effectively.
And, although the Prep (4-4-0) fell to 0-3-0 in Catholic Conference play — with a disappointing 4-3 loss to No. 21 Xaverian mixed in on Tuesday – Eagles head coach Kristian Hanson thought his team is nearly in the same position as they were this time last year.
“At the midpoint last year, we were 5-4-1 after 10 games, and I could see at that point last year that we were starting to emerge,” Hanson said “Clearly, we’ve got some things to work on, but we’re getting closer.”
The Eagles started quickly with senior co-captain Sam Kurker tallying his 11th goal of the season three minutes in.
Prep held an advantage in shots on goal early, but the Lancers finished the period in a flourish. After Tyler Sifferlen tied the score with 6:29 remaining in the first, MC headed to the room with a 2-1 lead, getting the go-ahead with five seconds on the clock. A dogged forecheck from Ryan Fitzgerald, forcing a Prep defensive zone turnover, ended up in his fifth goal in four games played.
The teams traded goals in the second period, with Sifferlen tallying his second of the game at 1:32 and Prep’s Brian Pinho scoring his first of two markers with 7:38 remaining.
The Eagles again had a good start to the third period, with Pinho netting his second on the power play at 2:09.
“We’re just trying to go to net,” Pinho said. “That was the plan for the whole team, just try to drive to the net. We know they’re a good team, both offensively and defensively. So we were just trying to get pucks to the net, get rebounds and get some dirty goals.”
Yet, Prep wasn’t able to carry momentum into end-of-period play. The unyielding MC forecheck, often forcing Prep’s defense into poor decisions, took over.
Sophomore winger Pat Wrenn (after netting a pair of goals against BC High) notched the game-winner with 6:47 to play, with freshman blue-liner Casey Fitzgerald earning the assist on a centering pass from below the goal line.
Senior captain Brendan Collier tallied the insurance marker 33 seconds later, beating Prep netinder David Letarte (29 saves) with a wicked, rising wristshot.
RUNNING THE GAUNLET
MC’s team speed and skill with the puck can cause fits for defensemen. So blue-liners need to be precise and quick when attempting to break out of their own end.
That was a precisely what did Prep at the end of the first, with Sifferlen benefitting from the up-check of freshman center Ara Nazarian.
Nazarian, MC’s first man in, forced a turnover below the dots, and shoveled a saucer pass over to Sifferlen for a 1-1 score.
“The last thing you want to do against a really good transition team, or a quick offensive team like them, is to turn the puck over at the blue line with your guys going one way,” Hanson said. “And then, all of a sudden, the puck’s headed the other way.”
Or worse, in the back of the net.
WRENN TAKING FLIGHT
The sophomore wing, who’s nestled in just fine with senior Bobby Keogh and Paul Myers on the Lancers’ third line, has scored some big goals of late.
That has earned the admiration of his Charlestown homeboy Collier, who reflected on Wrenn’s growth in the past year.
“He’s very skilled. He was with us last year as a freshman. We knew he was going to have a big season [this year]. He’s matured physically, mentally, and he’s a become a better player with the year under his belt. He’s just hitting his stride right now.”
As for Wrenn, he’s just taking cues from some of the best.
“I’m just trying to work my hardest,” he said. “We have the older guys like Collier and Fitzy [Ryan Fitzgerald] around, they’re good role models for us.”
Friday’s matchup saw two of the most highly skilled players in the state, and future Boston University teammates, going toe to toe, with MC’s Collier and Prep’s Kurker.
The pair got up close and personal throughout much of the game, with Collier shadowing Kurker on the wing. But Collier also drew the assignment of playing against Prep’s top power play unit on defense. Both head coach John McLean and before him, Chris Serino, have used Collier, a smooth two-way skater, in that capacity.
It’s a challenge that Collier embraces, even if it meant taking a couple lumps from his future teammate.
“With Sam [Kurker], you’ve got to put a body on him,” Collier said with a laugh. “He might run you over, but you’ve got to put a body on him.”
KINGS OF THE CIRCLE
Of note, MC was downright dominant in the face-off circle, winning 42 of 64 draws on the evening.
So the Adam Oates Award of the night goes to the quartet of Ryan Fitgerald, Nazarian, Keogh and Nick Mansiello.