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Division 1 hockey preview

Malden Catholic the team to beat

By Jake Seiner
Globe Correspondent / December 17, 2010

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There’s a pretty strong consensus in Eastern Massachusetts that as of now, one Division 1 hockey team stands out among the rest.

It’s not surprising that this favorite hails from the Catholic Conference, nor that this favorite has “Catholic” in its name.

Only this year, coaches aren’t talking about Catholic Memorial.

Heading into 2010-11, No. 1 Malden Catholic is the team to beat, and just about Super 8 contender sees it — including the Lancers.

“I could definitely see us being the most hated team in hockey,’’ senior Mike Vecchione said. “There’s definitely a target on our back this year because we have a great team this year. In my eyes, we could probably win the whole thing.’’

Vecchione, a University of New Hampshire commitment, is one of three uber-talented pieces comprising the Lancers’ exceptional top line. Sophomore Ryan Fitzgerald — a Boston College signee — centers the unit, with Vecchione and junior Brendan Collier at his wings.

“They’re very talented and very unselfish,’’ MC coach Chris Serino said. “They can move the puck, can all shoot, can all score, and can all pass. It’s a great line to coach. You have to give them some parameters, but you have to let them go, too.’’

If there is a hole in the Lancers’ game, it’s on the blue line. The Lancers boast just one senior and one junior starting defenseman, with two sophomores and two freshman completing the defensive unit. There’s talent among the group — especially on the top pairing of junior Connor Evangelista and sophomore Colin MacGillivray — but D-zone coverage will be a continued work in progress in Malden.

“I think we have a good defense, but we have to be careful about how we match them up,’’ Serino said. “We do have to tighten up in our own end, and work on avoiding turnovers.’’

The rest of the Catholic Conference is a tougher puzzle to piece together. No. 3 Catholic Memorial graduated a huge chunk of last year’s Super 8 runner-up squad. Among the returnees are Tommy Knox — who coach Bill Hanson last year compared favorably to former-Knight and Vezina trophy winner Jim Carey — and Mark Hetnik, arguably the top defenseman in the state.

The rest of the Knights are a mixture of returning role players and untested youth. The fresh faces have Hanson invigorated and excited for the 2010-11 season, and it won’t be a surprise if CM is right in the thick of things when the Super 8 tournament gets rolling in the spring.

“We’re young, but I think we’re talented young,’’ Hanson said. “It’s one thing to be young, it’s another thing to be talented young. We have a chance to be a lot better in six-to-eight weeks than we are right now.

“Familiarity breeds content, and it’s no secret we had some discipline problems last year. We had three of our top players suspended last year, and we overcame that. I’m enjoying coaching this year, as is the staff. We have this youthful enthusiasm. The senior captains Mark [Hetnik] and Tommy [Knox] are really terrific kids who are terrific players. People are going to look at us and say, ‘That’s it, they lost this and that.’ We’ve had years like this before and been there at the end.”

No. 9 St. John’s Prep is another Catholic Conference contender, but will only go as far as Harvard commit Colin Blackwell can carry the squad. No. 12 Xaverian, headed by Dave Spinale, will have to overcome the loss of goaltender Kyle MacDonald, but still looks like a potential Super 8 squad.

At BC High, the No. 15 Eagles will try to rebound from a winless 2009-10 Catholic Conference campaign with a new coach — John Flaherty.

Flaherty, a 1988 BC High grad, served as an assistant under former-coach Joe McCabe for 18 of his 22 years behind the bench.

The coach also headed the GBL Junior Bruins for the last 10 years, bringing home two national championships in five National USA Hockey tournament appearances.

“My hope is that with the new coaching staff, new coaches, there’ll be a new direction, new voices, if you will,” Flaherty said. “Hopefully we can wipe the slate clean and move on.

“There’s a tradition here. We’re going to stand on the fact that we have a traditionally strong program, and remind them the last few years have not been good, but that’s not this team. We need to be hungrier for it.’’

Outside the Catholic Conference, No. 2 Hingham, the reigning Super 8 champ, has a lot of empty skates to fill. The Harbormen graduated 13 seniors from last year’s squad, but do return a few very key pieces.

Chief among the returnees is Tim Driscoll, a future Holy Cross Crusader, who scored 60 points with a plus-52 rating last year. Joining Driscoll are blue liners Steve Bellew and Patrick Cahill, along with netminder Derek McInnis, who emerged as a star in net after battling all last season to earn full-time starting duties.

“It’s been an interesting summer,’’ coach Tony Messina said. “Obviously we were very excited about it. The kids were really excited about it ... Part way through the summer, the guys realized it wasn’t going to do anything for us this year. The work ethic was good all summer.

“We haven’t talked about repeating. That’d be a major accomplishment, but we’re looking at things day by day. If we start thinking about repeating, having that kind of success again, we’re setting ourselves up for failure.”

No. 6 Austin Prep took home the Catholic Central crown last season, and despite a few key losses, figure to be in the CC fray yet again. The Cougars will not only have to replace the conference MVP in defenseman Cam Gaudet — brother of Boston University sophomore Ross Gaudet — but will also be without the services of goalie Brendan Lahey, a Globe All-Scholastic of the Year, and center Brendan Silk. Leahy left early to play Empire Junior Hockey, while Silk is playing in the US National Development program.

The losses haven’t dampened coach Lou Finicchiaro’s outlook for the upcoming season, though.

“We have a good nucleus of kids back,’’ the coach said. “We’re hoping to compete for the league championship. That’s our goal every year, and see where we fall in the state tournament or Super 8 tournament.”

The Cougars will welcome back Steve Caruso, who missed all of last season with a torn ACL and MCL. Carusso will serve as a captain alongside senior Tim Benedetto Jr. — son of the Hockey East official of the same name. On the blue line, junior defenseman Riley MacEachern is among the best in the state, by Finicchiaro’s account.

No. 5 St. Mary’s may be the team to beat in the Catholic Central, however. The Spartans welcome back nearly everybody from last year’s second-place squad, including goaltender Donald Hesse and a strong core of defenders. Sophomores Connor Parent and Bobby Mullins could be a dangerous duo to watch at forward, with each accounting for 2 goals and an assist in the Spartans’ 7-1 season opening win over St. Bernard’s.

Among the other Catholic Central contenders will be No. 10 Arlington Catholic — last year’s Division 1 state champs — and No. 13 Archbishop Williams, which played runner-up to AC in the final. AC lost 17 players from last year’s title squad, including standout goalie Cam Kelley, but coach Dan Shine’s system has proven successful through the years, and incoming goalie John Busa did see action in 11 of 25 games a year ago.

Meanwhile, Archies is coming off its first state tournament appearance since 2000, but has work to do to make it back to the big dance. AW will have to overcome the loss of seniors James Boyle and Jim Perron to graduation, but do return Mike Boyle (21 goals, 11 assists) and figure to continue to make strides under third-year coach Derackk Curtis.

The Bay State Carey will be No. 7 Needham’s to lose, and the Rockets, along with Hingham and No. 4 Cathedral (Springfield), are the most likely Super 8 contenders beyond the Catholic Conference and Catholic Central.

Coach Bill Guisti has headed some good teams at Needham recently, with Super 8 appearances in each of the last three years, and he thinks this year’s Rocket squad might be his best yet.

“We have a lot of really good players,’’ Guisti said. “I like the team I have and the chemistry I have better than the last three years.’’

Needham is anchored by athletic 6-foot-3 defenseman Chris Joyce, who Guisti compared favorably to CM’s Hetnik. The coach’s word will be put to the test sooner rather than later –– the Knights and Rockets will square off in a rather revealing matchup Saturday at Walter Brown Arena.

In the Middlesex League, the loss of league MVP Mike Seward, along with coach Mike Messuri, has No. 11 Winchester and new coach Matt Spang likely taking a step back from last year’s Super 8 appearance, and opens the door for No. 8 Burlington to potentially take home the league title.

The Red Devils have had an impressive preseason, topping Hingham 4-0 in two periods at the Garrett Reagan summit and handling Arlington Catholic a 1-0 defeat in one period of play at the Arlington Jamboree.

No. 14 Central Catholic returns as the reigning Merrimack Valley Conference/Dual County League champs, and have another promising squad for 2010-11. Replacing Shawn Bradley will be a tall task, but the Raiders still have enough offensive weapons to put goals on the board in bunches.

“We’ll still have that punch, but we don’t have the same experience in depth roles,” Jankowski said. “I’m excited to see kids getting the chance for the first time, though. We have a fantastic goalie [Kyle Williams] and some firepower up front.”

Other MVC/DCL contenders are No. 16 Acton-Boxboro and Waltham. Parity is definitely a theme to watch in the league this year, with Westford also not far behind.

In Medford, Steve DeBenedictis arrived with two distinct goals when he took over as head coach last season. One was to rejuvenate hockey in an area where the sport had seemed to lose some luster. The Mustangs perfect Greater Boston League record in 2009-10 suggests he’s already succeeding there.

Just as important to DeBenedictis, the coach has challenged his players to improve in the classroom, and they’ve responded. Sixty percent of the program is now on the honor roll, the coach said.

The improvements off the ice, paired with improvements on it, have the Medford program on the rise.

“Right now the struggle is to get them to play positional hockey in a structured system,” DeBenedictis said. “We’re making strides. For the first time in a year and two months, I can see the progress. I can see it now and I think it’ll move quicker now.”

Medford is improving, but so is the rest of the GBL. Somerville fielded a young squad in 2009-10, and is expected to improve on its 4-4 conference mark a year ago, while Everett is also closing the gap.

Starting 6

A preseason look at the top players in Division 1 boys’ hockey.

G — Tommy Knox, Catholic Memorial

D — Mark Hednic, Catholic Memorial

D — Chris Joyce, Needham

F — Tim Driscoll, Hingham

F — Mike Vecchione, Malden Catholic

F — Colin Blackwell, St. John’s Prep