NORTH ANDOVER, Mass. - No matter good a team's top performers are and no matter how much they carry a team through the regular season, it's unlikely that any squad can win a state championship - especially the prestigious Super Eight - based on the strength of just one potent line.
In Round 2, St. John's Prep got a breakthrough performance from its second line as Andrew Brandano popped in two goals, including the game-winner, to lead the third-seeded Eagles to a 4-3 victory over No. 7 Central Catholic at Lawler Arena.
It seemed as though the Raiders (1-1 Super Eight, 14-4-5 overall) had all the momentum after Mike Kelleher forced a turnover and popped in a shorthanded goal just 3:45 into the third period, but Brandano changed all that with one terrific rush down the left wing.
John Ryan picked up the puck in the Eagles (2-0, 15-5-2) end and sent Brandano flying down the left boards while catching Central in a line change. Brandano walked in on Central goalie Kyle Williams, deked once to pull him out of position, then shot the puck past his glove side for the eventual game-winner at 7:36.
"John Ryan got the puck in the defensive zone and I think the other team was going for a change so I just broke off and John backhanded it up," Brandano explained. "I picked it up, went down the left side and noticed the left side was open so I just shot it and it went in."
Added Central coach Mike Jankowski, "We had the power plays and we had some guys who were running a little bit ragged there and had some forwards at 'D' and unfortunately got caught in a change there and exposed it. You can't do that with these guys, not even a little bit. These guys finish strong and they capitalized on the mistake."
Brandano, who also assisted on a second-period tally by Sam Kurker, has been a great story for the Eagles during the postseason, notching a goal in the Prep's Super Eight opener in addition to the two last night. In just his first season with the varsity, the junior has made a positive impact on the team's fortunes.
"I think Andrew's really emerged this year as one of our go-to guys," Prep head coach Kristian Hanson said. "It's his first year on varsity, he's a junior, we brought him along with the freshman, brought him along on JV, he was one of the top players at both levels."
"He's kind of deceivingly good," Hanson continued. "People look at him, he's not really big but he's one of those guys that just has a natural ability around the net. He's very smart player, he's a very smart kid academically and he's a kid who's done a great job of giving us some balance."
In addition to Brandano's unit, the Eagles third line also contributed a goal as Derek Osbahr tied the game with a second-period tally with assists from Mark Azarian and James Brightney.
"With our third line or our fourth line, the only thing we really want them to do is play even so for them to get a goal is a bonus," Hanson admitted. "Osbahr, that's his second goal of the year. He had a goal in the last game of the year. He's not a goal scorer but that certainly was a timely goal for us."
While the second and third lines stepped up big against the Raiders, the other thing that pleased Hanson was a return to form by the Eagles star forward Sam Kurker. The Boston University-committ had been struggling somewhat to find his form of late, but on this night, Kurker was back to his dominant self.
Offensively, the senior had a goal and two assists. He was also a beast in the defensive zone as well as on special teams while killing penalties. In short, Kurker looked like the game changing player he regularly has been.
"I thought Sam played much better tonight, said Hanson. "We don't pull any punches. We flat out said it him - he struggled the other night. But he came out tonight completely different player - much more energy, much more physical. He had a number of great chances, had a goal and obviously Sam was a difference-maker for us.
LATE GAME STRATEGY DECISIONS
The unique format of the Super Eight tends to force coaches to make decisions they might not ordinarily make. Such was the case for Central Catholic, who had an opportunity to pull goalie Kyle Williams in the final minute of play while trailing, 3-2.
Williams looked continuously toward his bench waiting for a signal while his teammates worked to maintain possession in the Eagles zone. The Raiders even took a timeout with a faceoff in the Eagles end with 26.2 seconds left and Williams spent much of it skating behind his teammates, likely waiting for word on what his role would be.
Jankowski, ever mindful of the tiebreaker scenarios that may likely emerge heading into Round 3, elected to keep Williams in net and play it safe rather than risk giving up an empty-netter that might cause problems with goal differential, should that tiebreaker come into play. He also admitted afterward that the format of the tournament plays a major role in the thought process, saying, "It's a tough thing because your natural instinct is pull the goalie and lets get one and obviously play to win, or actually tie it up and then go from there."
A similar situation developed during the first game of the Super Eight when Hingham coach Tony Messina elected to pull his goalie and play for a win, knowing full well his team was scheduled to face top-seeded Malden Catholic in Round 3.
While the two situations are drastically different, both Jankowski and Messina made choices that they felt best suited their teams needs while keeping the overall picture in mind.