Schneider Arena will open its doors this weekend for the state championship hockey series, and it’s a safe bet that the two participants will feel right at home when they walk in.
For the fifth time in six years, Bishop Hendricken and Mount St. Charles will play for the state’s top hockey prize. The series opens Friday at 7:30 p.m., and continues Saturday at 7:30. If necessary, game three would be played Monday night, also at 7:30.
When the teams line up, they’ll both know what to expect.
“We’re pretty familiar with them, both in the long term and the short term,” said Hendricken head coach Jim Creamer. “I think when you look at us, we’re pretty evenly-matched. It should be a really good series.”
Hendricken enters as the No. 1 seed on the heels of a 14-3-1 regular season and a semifinal sweep of Burrillville. Mount went 13-5 in league play, earned the No. 2 seed and beat third-seeded La Salle two games to one in the semifinals, winning Monday’s game three by a 3-2 score in double overtime.
Compared with their last three championship meetings, this year’s match-up features a bit of a role reversal. Mount has been the top seed for four straight years, and has won the championship each time. The Mounties swept the Hawks in last year’s title series.
This season, the Hawks are the top seed for the first time since 2007, when they won the second of their two straight championships.
But any talk of favorites and underdogs can probably be thrown out the window this weekend.
“I think when you look at all the games we’ve played in totality, both teams are just really balanced,” Creamer said. “I don’t think there’s a lot separating either of us.”
That’s a bit of a surprise, considering the way the season started.
Hendricken brought a young team to Schneider Arena last year and, with a lot of players coming back, the Hawks were labeled as an early favorite. They opened the season with 10 wins and a tie before suffering their first loss. Meanwhile, the Mounties battled some growing pains and started the season 3-4. Hendricken beat them twice in that span by 6-3 and 3-2 scores.
Since then, though, the gap has closed – and the match-ups between the teams are a pretty good indicator. The Mounties won 10 of their last 11 regular-season games, including a 4-1 victory over the Hawks on Jan. 27 and a 6-5 win in the most recent meeting between the teams on Feb. 24.
“They certainly have gotten better,” Creamer said. “They lost a number of talented kids from last year’s team. The boys they’re playing now have just gotten better. They’re playing very well.”
The Mounties have also found a little playoff magic. After dropping game one of their semifinal series, they beat La Salle 4-3 in double-overtime in game two before the 3-2 double-overtime thriller in game three.
Creamer was part of the packed house at Adelard Arena for game three, so he’s aware of the wave Mount is riding.
“I think both teams were outstanding Monday,” Creamer said. “It was just a great game and a great sporting event. Either team could have won it.”
Mount’s victory prevented what would have been the first-ever championship match-up between Hendricken and La Salle. Instead, the history books get a familiar chapter.
“They’re a very typical Mount team,” Creamer said. “They’re well-coached. They attack, attack, attack, and they try to break you down that way.”
Across the four meetings between the Hawks and Mounties, they matched each other with 15 goals apiece. Each team won a game by three goals, and the other by a one-goal margin.
The Mounties out-shot the Hawks in three of the four games, and the teams were tied in shots in the other, a hint that quantity isn’t the key. In fact, Mount’s highest shot total – 59 – was in its 6-2 loss on Jan. 6.
The way the Hendricken defense sees it, quality is the real issue.
“In our end, we’ve got to try to keep them to the outside and prevent them from getting the real high-quality shots,” Creamer said. “We know we’re going to see a lot of shots, but if we can keep them to the outside, then I have a lot of faith in our goaltender and our defense to get the job done.”
In net, the Hawks will likely ride junior Billy Palmer. Last year, he and Mitch Proulx alternated starts. Proulx has seen some action this season, but Palmer has started the last 10 games, and he got the call each time the Hawks faced Mount. Palmer finished the regular season with a 2.60 goals against average and a .912 saves percentage.
Palmer is no stranger to the Mounties’ attack, having faced 52 shots the last time the teams met. The Mounties led the division with 83 goals in the regular season, two more than Hendricken.
Junior Brian Belisle is Mount’s top scorer – and the top point-getter in the league – with 18 goals and 22 assists. Senior Brian Campbell ranked fourth in the league in points with 14 goals and 17 assists. The Mounties have also gotten a boost from senior Nick Bennett, who returned to the team after a year at prep school. He sat out half the season in accordance with Interscholastic League rules, but has delivered five goals and nine assists since gaining eligibility.
“We’ve got to limit their chances,” Creamer said. “They have a number of kids who are skilled and can put the puck away.”
The Hawks have some firepower of their own, though, and putting it to good use will be a major point of emphasis. Freshman Matt Creamer led the team and ranked third in the league with 32 points. Senior Robbie Buehrer, who had two goals in last year’s state title series, tallied 14 goals and 16 assists this season.
The Hawks will likely be going against Mount sophomore Brian Larence, who ranked second in the division with a 2.06 goals against average.
“We have to generate offense against them,” Creamer said. “That’s one area where we’ve had success. If we can get the puck to the net and get some chances there, I think we’ll be able to capitalize.”
All in all, the Hawks know they’ll be facing a tough task, but they’re also confident. The team ended the regular season with an impressive victory over La Salle and played well in the sweep of Burrillville.
“I like the way we’ve been playing,” Creamer said.
And Creamer has no doubt that his team will be ready. Last year, they watched quietly as Mount celebrated another championship. Back on the same ice this weekend, the Hawks will be right where they’ve wanted to be ever since that day.
“I think it gives them a level of self-confidence and a sense of ease having been there before,” Creamer said. “They know what the whole thing’s about, and they’ve got it under their belts a little bit. We’re looking forward to it. There’s a general excitement that we’re there, and the kids have a real positive attitude.”