If you go back and study the film, Watertown boys’ hockey had a more remarkable start to the season than appeared at first glance.
Because the Raiders play in the Middlesex League and boast a schedule where greater than 70-percent of their opponents are of a higher division, they fall into the MIAA’s “Sullivan Rule,’’ which states that they need only perform .500 against teams in their division (Div. 3) to clinch a playoff berth.
On opening night, Watertown defeated Newton South, 3-1, in the Raiders’ lone game against a fellow Division 3 team this season. So technically speaking, Watertown punched its ticket to the postseason on Dec. 12, even before some teams had taken the ice for the first time. If they had lost the game, they still could have gotten in with a .500 record overall.
A playoff berth is a great accomplishment for any team on any given year — no matter how many games it takes — and coach Mike Hayes would be one of the first to agree. Getting to 20 points and earning a berth is usually the result of a marathon, not a sprint.
Now standing at 9-1-3 and tied for first in the Middlesex Freedom with Burlington and Melrose, the chance to contend for a league title is no longer a pipe dream.
“I couldn’t be prouder of these guys,’’ said Hayes, who is now in his second full season leading the Raiders.
“They just come every day ready to work. There’s no screwing around. We have fun and it’s just unbelievable to see a group of young men just get it, and I’m so proud of them. It’s really amazing.’’
Numbers haven’t always been kind to the Raiders, and this year is no different. In a school of less than 700 students, only 23 kids lace up for the varsity program, a smaller number than many of Watertown’s opponents.
The small roster can be even more daunting when you juxtapose the pool with which other league rivals draw from. Watertown must go head-to-head twice a season with the likes of Burlington, Melrose, and Wilmington — all successful Division 1 programs with larger student bodies.
Hayes, however, refuses to allow for complacency in such a competitive league.
“We have to play up every night to schools that are four times are size,’’ Hayes said, “and you know what? Who cares? We don’t care. That’s not an excuse for anything.’’
So when Hayes took over the Raider program midway through the 2012 season, excuses made way for preparation. His team began to do hours of film and board work every week, working to visualize in-game scenarios as opposed to just talking about them.
“We do a lot of film work,’’ Hayes said. “The kids really are required to do a lot of visual stuff like that — really watching other opponents from last season or whenever we played them before. They love doing it. They ask a lot of questions and they prepare well.
“They pay attention and they’re enthusiastic about game prep. When you have that, and you do get a win or two, you just build on it.’’
The Raiders’ players took to their studies early, and by the third week of the season scored a 3-1 upset of Winchester, a public school picked as an early favorite to place among the Super 8 at year’s end.
“We beat Winchester, and I was like, ‘Wow, we deserved to win that game,’ ’’ Hayes said. “We played better than they did. We deserved to win. It wasn’t shock — I believe in our guys. I tell them every day that I believe that we can win, I believe that we can compete with everybody, you guys need to believe.’’
Watertown continued to build on its success. The win over the Sachems served as a prelude to wins over Stoneham, Melrose, Reading, Methuen, and Woburn, while the Raiders also claimed ties against Burlington and Wilmington. In nine contests against their talented Middlesex Freedom rivals, the Raiders hold a remarkable 6-1-2 record.
A big reason for the success has been Anthony Busconi, who has anchored the Raiders in net. The junior has surrendered only 12 goals in 13 games.
Senior captain Dante Flori has been just as dependable in front of him, as the defenseman has helped shore up the defensive end while attributing 15 points on offense.
Offensively, Watertown has scorers across the board. Senior Trace Dodge leads the team with 21 points, while sophomores Michael Giordano (4-6-10), Tyler Gardiner (5-8-13), and Tyler Poulin (6-7-13) have all notched double-digits as underclassmen.
At nine wins, the Raiders have reached their win total from a season ago and the momentum has the program shifting in the right direction, but for Hayes, nine wins is just that. There is still a lot his team wants to accomplish. Winning their next game is where he’d like to start.
“We haven’t done much yet,’’ Hayes said. “We’ve won nine games, and that’s kind of our locker room mindset. I get the magnitude of some of the wins and where we’re at, but it’s nine wins.
“[The Middlesex] teams are all top, great teams. But you know what? I’ll take our guys any day.’’
Shine closes in on No. 500 — It took Dan Shine nearly 34 seasons as head coach to accumulate 499 career wins. Chances are he’s patient enough to wait at least one more game.
The Arlington Catholic coached notched win No. 499 in a 2-1 victory over Bishop Guertin (N.H.) on Monday afternoon. His first shot at the milestone victory came Saturday evening, but a 2-0 third-period lead for the sixth-ranked Cougars fell by the wayside when No. 3 Austin Prep rallied for the 3-2 win.
Shine could join the prestigious 500-win club as early as Wednesday, when the Cougars face Archbishop Williams at the Canton Sportsplex.
Irving alone at the top — Connor Irving has been the model of consistency in his time wearing the Beverly orange and black. Saturday afternoon at Salem State, Irving’s value to the Panthers was cemented in the school’s record books.
The senior notched two assists for the unbeaten Panthers in a 5-2 win over Danvers, sending him past Beverly great Roger LeBlanc to become the school’s all-time leading scorer. The four-year varsity starter now has 173 points with Beverly, and has accrued a line of 13-16-29 in leading the Panthers to a pristine 13-0-1 record.
LeBlanc tallied 172 points with the Panthers from 1996-1999.
Games of the week
Hingham at No. 13 Duxbury, Monday, 7:20 – Both programs struggled early in the year, but have found their groove as of late. The Dragons have notched four shutouts in their last six contests, while the unranked Harbormen won five in a row before a 3-2 setback to No. 10 St. John’s Shrewsbury on Saturday.
No. 5 Springfield Cathedral at No. 3 Austin Prep, Tuesday, 7:20 – Three of the most lethal forwards in the state will take the ice as Bobo Carpenter (Boston University commit) and the Cougars skate against DJ Petruzelli (Quinnipiac), Pete Crinella (Holy Cross), and the Cathedral Panthers in a potential Super 8 preview.
Falmouth at Plymouth South, Wednesday, 5:30 – While these two teams are looking up at No. 14 Marshfield, which is a perfect 8-0-0 in league play, the Atlantic Coast title is still very much in play for both programs. The Panthers took the first contest against Falmouth on Jan. 8 by a score of 3-0.
No. 4 Catholic Memorial vs. Delbarton (N.J.), Saturday, 5:30 – You’re going to want to leave the house a couple minutes early if you want to see the two storied hockey programs square off, as Yankee Stadium is about a three-and-a-half hour drive from Boston.
No. 3 Austin Prep at No. 7 St. Mary’s, Saturday, 6:30 – The surging Spartans scored a tie against the reigning Super 8 finalists during the Christie Serino Christmas Classic back in December. Since their meeting, the two Catholic Central rivals are a combined 13-3-2.