Now that it's in his rearview mirror, Lynnfield High boys' hockey coach Vin Mirasolo can see the benefits of last season playing out the way it did.
If you recall, around this time last year, the Pioneers were in trouble. One of the team's best players, John Connolly, was out with a dislocated shoulder. The offense had stalled. And Lynnfield's record, 7-3-2 at one point, was getting worse by the week. The Pioneers had to play backs-to-the-wall just to get within sniffing distance of the state tournament, clinching at 10-10-2 on the next to last day of the season, and a coin flip decided their preliminary-round foe.
That, of course, all worked out for the good, in Mirasolo's eyes.
"We were literally playing tournament hockey for the last month of the season," he said.
This season it's a little different. The Pioneers clinched their tournament berth sometime around the New Hampshire primary. Going into a weekend trip to Martha's Vineyard, they haven't lost a game since December. Ryan Smith is one of the top scorers in the state. And even though they're not, say, desperate like they may have been last year, they're definitely good. Possibly one of the best teams in Division 2.
And with that said, with the brackets staring you in the face like the stairway to a championship, is it better to be hot right about now or good?
Since Mirasolo's been on both ends, he was kind of noncommittal.
"You clearly want to be good," said Mirasolo, whose squad features seven Cape Ann League all-stars, including the league MVP in Smith. "You want to be talented. But you want to be playing your best hockey come tournament time."
The Pioneers have a number of weapons. With 20 goals and 35 assists going into the weekend, Smith has already topped his point total (54) of last season. And back from injury, Connolly's been a nice counterpunch with 21 goals, 20 assists. Then there's Craig Cataldo, who must have grown facial hair last year after his coming of age experience leading the Pioneers to the North final as an eighth-grader. He's shut out four teams this season and you'd need a magnifying glass to see his 1.78 goals-against average.
But talent by the ark still can't save any team from the unpredictability of the postseason. And as wild as the regular season's been so far, Mirasolo and a lot of other coaches feel the same way.
"Historically Division 2 North is always a wide-open affair," Mirasolo. "The quality of play is so high and the parity is so obvious. But this year more than any, you're going to have 15, 16 teams in the Division 2 North bracket that are top-quality programs. So if you're playing your best hockey, seeding doesn't matter. I think that was proven last year.
Last year, eight games in the Division 2 North tournament were decided by two goals or less, three went to overtime, and two went to shootouts. The Pioneers played two themselves, stunning Gloucester in the semifinals.
"I think the tournament's going to be a surprise, too," said Gloucester head coach Don Lowe. "The teams that are favored are probably not going to be the ones that are going to win. Everything's dead even."
St. Mary's lived life in Division 2 before jumping to Division 1 last year, and for a team that was in a hurry to get to the highest level, Division 2 just got in the way of their dominance. In 2005, St. Mary's coach Mark Lee thought for sure he'd roll over Gloucester and Lowe, who was just in his first year as head coach. But after two overtimes, the Spartans bowed down.
"It just seems to happen every year that a dark horse just gets on a roll at the right time," said Lee. "Any team that's good enough to make the tournament is good enough to win."
One of the Spartans' biggest wins this year came at Gloucester ("a team that's been a thorn in our side," Lee said.) But before these last few weeks, when the Spartans topped the Fishermen, Malden Catholic, and a Springfield Cathedral team that beat them by six goals earlier in the year, you'd have been hard-pressed to find St. Mary's on anybody's list of teams to watch come tournament time.
"This year for the first time in a long time we're kind of flying under the radar," Lee said, knowing that a lot of times those are the kinds of teams that turn the tournament into a tilt-a-whirl. "We're kind of hoping we're that team this year."
Truth be told, it could be anybody.
Biggest wins: BC High twice (3-1, 3-2), Xaverian (7-2), Austin Prep (7-3)
The Walking Wounded: Gloucester The irony is that all season the Fishermen looked invincible, but the whole time they were playing at 75 percent. Their best player, Josh Salah, went down early in the season but the Fishermen kept the wins coming. The injuries are catching up, starting with goalie Bradley Robertson and his shoulder.
Head coach Don Lowe set the bar high by winning a state title in his first year. After reaching the semifinals last season, even he's itching for the chance to bring another title to the Tank.
Biggest win: Peabody, 7-2
The Firing Squad: Peabody Tanners coach Mark Leonard makes a pretty decent argument against that whole "defense wins championships" thing. "If we're always in your zone and we're taking 40 shots a game," he said. "It's kind of hard to defend that." Of course, because his team is this clip-emptying beast that's beaten seven opponents by three goals or more and his best player, Elijah Cohen, is the leading scorer in the NEC, Leonard almost has to make that argument.
Biggest win: Gloucester, 7-1.
The Giant Killer: Saugus Are the Sachems the best team in the Northeastern Conference? Depends on how this week goes. Do they strike fear in the hearts of the league's best teams? Tales of the Sachems' giant slayings this season are epic (see wins over Beverly and Danvers, and a tie with Peabody). Say what you want, but they're physical, they defend, and they've got a solid goalie in Paul Essery. That's a nasty combination that had a gang of NEC teams telling the Sachems to step away from the slingshot. But the picture might change with star forward Mike Scuzzarella now hurting with a broken wrist.
Biggest win: Beverly, 5-0.
The Sleeper: Revere Last year's one and done is kind of misleading. Lynnfield skated on Cinderella's slipper last year, and Revere just happened to be the Pioneers' first victim, in a 3-2 overtime affair no less. The Patriots haven't been slouches this season, surprising Gloucester and Peabody. And they have one of the best players in the NEC, Chris Mastropietro. Depending on how the seedings turn out, maybe the Pats could return the favor to Lynnfield.
Under the Radar Swampscott: The Big Blue haven't been to the tournament since 1997 but they've got an MVP-caliber player, Keith Morgan (13 goals, 12 assists), in their pocket plus wins in seven of their last nine games.
Masconomet: That slow start looks like such a long time ago when you consider the Chieftains are now 10-7 with wins in four of their last six games and a brick wall named Mike DiGiorgio between the pipes.
Newburyport: Indeed the Cape Ann Clippers could be trouble with four straight wins; even Lynnfield's Mirasolo gave them the nod as a dark horse.
Julian Benbow can be reached at email@example.com or 978-646-3927.