The bar was set extremely high. Entering this season, the Malden Catholic hockey team had lost just three regular-season games the past two seasons, and had not dropped a game to an in-state foe since January 2011 en route to back-to-back Super 8 titles.
Three players have committed to Hockey East programs – sophomore defenseman Casey Fitzgerald (Boston College), junior forward Tyler Sifferlen (University of Massachusetts Lowell), and senior forward Mike Iovanna (UMass Amherst) – with several receiving more calls every week.
In October, Malden Catholic was dealt a terrible blow. Its revered former head coach, Chris Serino , who had to step away last season , lost his battle to throat cancer. The Lancers pushed through preseason workouts just as he would have liked, though they were minus five key seniors from championship teams, with Boston College commit Ryan Fitzgerald now skating for the Valley Junior Warriors
MC started 3-0-2, but on Jan. 5, things began to unravel.
That Saturday night, the Lancers suffered their first in-state loss in two years, falling to St. John’s Prep, 3-2. It was the start of a 2-6-1 stretch, leaving MC with a very mediocre 5-6-3 mark with six games to play, six games against some of the stiffest competition in the state.
“We had a real big speed bump,” said second-year coach John McLean , who took over last season after working with Serino for several years.
“The atmosphere was not good [in the locker room]. But I talked to the coaches and said I thought we’d lose four games. That was sort of a shock that I said that, but we are a new team, we’ve got a lot of young kids on the team, and I’m OK with that as long as we became a team at the right time. Six [losses] almost cost us.”
With the season on the line, the Lancers knew there wasn’t much time to turn it around.
To many, Super 8 hopes were all but lost, the final six games would prove too difficult. “We knew halfway through the year we had to win every game to even be considered,” said McLean.
Starting with a 10-0 shutout of New Hampshire’s Bishop Guertin, Malden Catholic swept its final six games, four by shutout, including 4-0 and 1-0 blankings of Super 8 teams Central Catholic and Springfield Cathedral, respectively, to earn a matchup against Archbishop Williams in a Super 8 play-in game Monday.
Central Catholic coach Mike Jankowski, whose team made it to the Super 8 with a 4-3 play-in win over Hingham Monday, reflected about the transformation of a team seemingly lost in mediocrity.
“They got backed into the corner and their skill level and character show what they’re capable of doing,” he said. “The point that’s really overlooked with them is how well they’re coached. The personalities are really tough to manage — you have those guys who come from such a high talent pool but you have to make sure they buy into your team concepts.”
For McLean, that’s what he sees as the biggest reason for his team’s success. “It’s about Malden Catholic,” he noted. “That’s the way it has to be.”
So, after its 6-0 finish, Malden Catholic (12-6-3) rolled over Archbiship Williams, 9-1, Monday, with freshman Matt Filipe netting a pair of goals.
The Lancers open a best-of-3 series aginst Springfield Cathedral Sunday (4:30) at the Tsongas Center in Lowell.
Five boys’ teams
Here are five other boys’ teams to watch in the tourney:
■ Central Catholic: After stumbling toward the end of the season minus captain Mike Kelleher (team violations), the Raiders rallied from a 3-0 deficit late in Monday’s Super 8 play-in game to defeat Hingham 4-3 in overtime.
■ St. John’s Prep: The Eagles flew through their regular season, earning the No. 1 seed in the Super 8 tournament. They’ll play Central Catholic in the first round on Sunday.
■ Reading: After losing only one game, the Rockets earned the No. 5 seed in the Super 8.
■ Beverly: Sophomore goalie Tim Birarelli led the Panthers to the top seed in Division 2 with a 0.82 goals-against average en route to an 18-1-1 regular season. Watch out for the Irving cousins, Andrew, a senior, and Connors, a junior.
■ Wilmington: The defending Division 2 state champions finished 16-3-2 in the regular season, and are led by the program’s all-time leading scorer, senior Cam Owens .
Girls’ team to watch
Five girls’ teams to watch :
■ Woburn: The Tanners finished 17-0-3 and are led by two 50-point scorers — senior Kayla Smith (31-27-58) and junior Ashley Moran (25-25-50).
■ Reading: Despite losing twice to Woburn, the Rockets earned the sixth seed in the Division 1 tourney with a 14-4-2 record. Watch out for the freshman duo of Ali O’Leary and Tori Grimmer, who scored 47 and 22 points, respectively.
■ Beverly/Danvers: Their bid for an undefeated season ended with two straight losses, but they still earned the No. 2 seed in Division 1 with a 16-2-2 record. They’re led by two 40-point scorers — junior Nicole Woods (22-19-41) and senior Olivia Konaxis (17-25-42).
■ Westford Academy: The Grey Ghosts finished 15-3-2 en route to the third seed in Division 1. Watch out for the Lizotte sisters, senior Kimmy and sophomore Sarah .
■ Masconoment: After two consecutive losses in January, the Chieftains finished 10-1-2 to earn the fifth seed in Division 1 and a first-round bye.