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Three months of regular-season games have now boiled down to three weeks of state tournament action.
And for five of the six Blackstone Valley teams that qualified for the playoffs, the â€˜second seasonâ€™ commences tonight at arenas throughout the state.
While the opening weekend of the postseason had long been reserved for the quarterfinal-round series, that wonâ€™t be the case this winter in the new State Championship playoffs, which along with the Division I tourney, jumps right into its semifinals this weekend.
The matchups for the State Championship tournament will certainly be worth the price of admission, with four-time defending champion Mount St. Charles battling La Salle and regular-season champ Bishop Hendricken clashing with Burrillville.
The opening games of their best-of-three series are tonight, with the Broncos (13-5) paying a visit to the Hawks (14-3-1) at 7 p.m. at Thayer Arena, and the Mounties (13-5) hosting the Rams (11-6-1) at 9 at Adelard Arena.
In Saturdayâ€™s Game 2s, Thayer will again host a State Championship matchup when the Mounties visit the Rams at 7 p.m., and Levy Arena will be the place to be when Burrillville and Hendricken meet up in a 7 p.m. game.
Should a third and deciding game be needed in these series, as well as any of the other ones in the other divisions this weekend, they will be held Monday at the Game 1 site and at a time to be announced.
In Division II, the quarterfinal round will get under way and feature two local teams, Cumberland and the St. Raphael/Providence Country Day/Wheeler co-op team.
The Clippers, who are 11-5-2 and the second seed out of the North, will host longtime nemesis Portsmouth, 10-6-2 and the Southâ€™s third seed, in Game 1 of their best-of-three series tonight at 7:30 p.m. at Adelard Arena. The second game will be held tomorrow at 6 in the frigid confines of Portsmouth Abbeyâ€™s rink.
The SRA/PCD co-op squad, which at 8-6-4, landed the Northâ€™s fourth seed, will take on Division II-South champion Prout (12-4-2) and venture to URIâ€™s Boss Arena tonight for an 8 p.m. matchup. Game 2 of the series is tomorrow at 7 at Lynch Arena.
In the six-team Division III tournament, second-place East Providence (13-3) received a bye into next weekendâ€™s semifinals, but third-place Tolman (12-4) earned a quarterfinal-round matchup with sixth-place Scituate (5-10-1).
The Tigers will host the Spartans tonight at 9:30 p.m. at Lynch Arena, and the Spartans will do likewise in Saturdayâ€™s Game 2 at 7:30 p.m. at the Smithfield Ice Rink.
Hereâ€™s a look at the five series of local interest.
State Championship, Mount St. Charles vs. La Salle
The Mountiesâ€™ quest for â€˜Banner 43â€™ begins against a foe that has given them problems for most of the season. The Rams had won their first three Division I meetings by scores of 3-1, 3-2 (in overtime), and 6-1, and swiped a 3-2 win from them in the Christopher Brooks Memorial game on Jan. 17.
But the Mounties have flourished down the stretch, capturing their last seven games, and along the way, defeating La Salle, 4-2, and Hendricken, 6-5. The Rams, meanwhile, played .500 hockey (3-3) during the month of February.
The Mounties, who started the season with one of their youngest squads in a number of years, may have finally turned the corner, and that, along with the addition (and return) of transfer student and senior defenseman Nick Bennett midway through the season, has made them a dangerous team once again.
One player who has had a breakout season is junior Brian Belisle, who leads the division in scoring with 18 goals and 22 assists. Big contributions will be expected offensively from him, senior co-captain Brian Campbell (14 goals, 17 assists), and sophomore Brandon Borges (11 goals, 16 assists).
Defensively, senior co-captain Ben Handanyan and Bennett guide the charge, and sophomore goalie Brian Larence has quietly established himself as one of the stateâ€™s best at his position.
The Mountiesâ€™ â€˜Dâ€™ will also need to have a big series against the Rams, who have received balanced scoring from their top two lines and have two players, Bryan Lemos and Stephen Roccio, who lead the team with 13 goals each and have had some big games at Mountâ€™s expense this winter.
Another key for the defending champs is to stay away from the penalty box. While their penalty kill was at its best in their last win over the Rams, they gave up power-play goals in three of their four losses to them that eventually came back to haunt them.
State Championship, Burrillville vs. Hendricken
The sentimental favorite in the State Championship tourney is Burrillville, the public school team celebrating its 75th anniversary and looking to knock off the parochial schools to win the stateâ€™s top prize for its first time in 39 years.
The Broncos enter the contest with victories in 12 of their last 13 games, but the loss was a 4-1 defeat to the Hawks back on Feb. 3 at Thayer that saw the Hawks score twice in the first period and outshoot the Broncos, 29-11.
If the Hawks have a significant advantage over the Broncos, its in their depth. Offensively, they skate three solid lines and have five players that have scored at least nine or more goals, and defensively, their core of blueliners are among the best in the state.
But in net, the Broncos have the edge with battle-tested senior Jacob Toback, who saw more shots and put up better numbers (a 2.24 GAA, .923 save pct.) than the Hawksâ€™ William Palmer during the season.
If the Broncos plan to stun the favored Hawks, they are going to need Toback and the rest of the defense to stand tall and big games from senior co-captain Andrew Etheridge (18 goals, 12 assists), junior Evan Lafond (12 goals), and freshman Chad Stone (11 goals). Staying away from the penalty box will also be very important.
Division II, Cumberland vs. Portsmouth
The Clippers have not had any luck with the Patriots in the postseason in the past couple of seasons, losing to them in last Marchâ€™s semifinals and the 2010 Division II title series. Could the third time playing them be the charm?
The Clippers skate into the playoffs the healthiest theyâ€™ve been in a couple of months. Senior center Mike Kinch (21 goals, 19 assists) is having a splendid season, and the defense, led by senior goalie Pat Noke, has surrendered only 43 goals this winter.
And speaking of the â€˜Dâ€™, itâ€™s going to need to be on top of its game against a Portsmouth team that scored the second-most goals (95) in the entire Division II and boast the leagueâ€™s goal-scoring leader in 30-goal sniper Chris Oliveira.
If the Clippers have one clear advantage over the Patriots, itâ€™s in their ability to avoid careless penalties. As a matter of fact, Cumberland was the leagueâ€™s least penalized team (averaging just over five minutes per contest), while the Patriots averaged close to 14Â½ per game.
Division II, SRA/PCD/Wheeler vs. Prout
The local co-op entry, which owns a 2-1-2 mark in its last five games, faces a difficult draw in the Crusaders, who won their regular-season title by getting balanced scoring out of its three lines (eight players had between 6-11 goals) and playing exceptional defense (just 40 goals allowed).
Offensively, the locals will need plenty of production from three SRA players who hail from Pawtucket, junior Ben Mello (12 goals, 18 assists), sophomore Mark Carrara (12 goals, six assists) and freshman Nathan Duffy (eight goals), as well as East Providenceâ€™s Mark Long, a PCD junior.
Junior goalie Max Lemay has had some great games down the stretch, and he will certainly need to continue his strong play in this important series.
Like the Cumberland-Portsmouth series, another big key to the series will be SRA/PCDâ€™s ability to stay out of the penalty box. The squad has averaged close to 15 minutes of penalties during the regular season, more than any of the divisionâ€™s eight playoff teams.
Division III, Tolman vs. Scituate
Of these five playoff series, this one may be the most predictable. The Tigers skate into the series with six straight wins, including 4-0 and 12-0 victories over the Spartans, who have one victory in their last seven games and barely held on to cop the last playoff spot.
Senior Kody Casavant (31 goals, 22 assists) and sophomore Jared Pedro (29 goals, 13 assists) had big games at the Spartansâ€™ expense, and the defense, led by senior goalie Stephane Meunier and junior defensemen Chris Baldwin and Ryan Pedro had little problems with Scituate, which scored just 53 goals this season.
If the Tigers take care of business and avoid any stunning upset bids by the Spartans, then they will take on East Providence in an all-Blackstone Valley matchup thatâ€™s sure to draw a packed house at Lynch.