Mount St. Charles goalie Brian Larence, shown making a save during a game last month against Bishop Hendricken, will be between the pipes tonight when the Mounties face La Salle in the opener of their best-of-three semifinal-round series at Adelard Arena. PHOTO BY ERNEST A. BROWN
For Mount St. Charles and Burrillville, only two victories separate them from a return trip to Brown Universityâ€™s Meehan Auditorium and a chance to claim championship glory.
For Cumberland, Lincoln, North Smithfield, and the St. Raphael/Providence Country Day/Wheeler co-op team, itâ€™s going to take twice as many wins for a cherished spot in the Division II finals.
For these six teams, the march to Brown begins tonight as the puck drops on the state playoffs in the form of best-of-three series around the state.
The Mounties will begin their State Championship title defense and pursuit of Banner No. 44 when they battle La Salle in their semifinal-round series, while the Broncos open the Division I semifinals against defending champion Barrington.
As for the Division II tournament, Cumberland takes an 18-0 record into its quarterfinal-round series with Middletown, Lincoln faces North Smithfield in a Blackstone Valley special, and the SRA/PCD squad contests the Prout School.
The openers of these five series are scheduled for tonight, with Burrillville and Barrington taking the ice first at 6 p.m. at Portsmouth Abbeyâ€™s rink. Mount and La Salle battle at 7:30 p.m. in the opener of a twinbill at Adelard Arena that features the Clippers and the Islanders in the 9 p.m. nightcap.
Lincoln and N.S. start their series with an 8 p.m. game at Lynch Arena, and the SRA/PCD squad bus to URIâ€™s Boss Arena for its 8:30 p.m. opener with the Crusaders.
In Saturdayâ€™s Game 2s, two 6 p.m. games kick off the schedule. The Mounties and Rams continue their series at West Warwickâ€™s Magiera Rink, while the Clippers take their act to Portsmouth to clash with the Islanders.
The SRA/PCD team will be in the friendly confines of Lynch Arena for its 7:30 p.m. game with the Crusaders. N.S. will be on its home ice at the R.I. Sports Center for an 8:30 p.m. contest with the Lions, and the Broncos are also home at Levy Arena for their 9 p.m. affair with the Eagles.
If a third and deciding game is needed in any of these series, it will take place on Monday night at a rink and time to be announced.
As for the Division III playoffs, they begin next Friday and contain a semifinal-round series between the fourth-seeded Scituate/Tolman co-op squad, which features Tolman seniors Jared Pedro, Teddy Reall, and Kris Wallace, and Narragansett, which was a co-champion of the regular season.
Hereâ€™s a look at this weekendâ€™s five series:
Mount St. Charles (14-4) vs. La Salle (8-6-4)
All signs point to the second-seeded Mounties and regular-season champion Hawks facing off in next weekâ€™s championship series, which begin on Friday, March 14, at 7 p.m., but before they can set their sights on Brown, they have to take care of business against the third-seeded Rams and fourth-seeded Smithfield.
The Mounties, who swept their three-game, regular-season series with the Rams, own a 10-game win streak over their parochial rival that includes the final two games of their epic best-of-three semifinal-round series in 2012 and last yearâ€™s convincing sweep in the finals.
But of those 10 wins, half of them were decided by one goal, including two of the Mountiesâ€™ wins over the Rams this season.
Offensively, the Mounties have a significant edge over the Rams. They have a balanced attack that has scored 75 goals â€“ 22 more than the Rams did during the regular season. But defensively, both teams are superb, especially in net with the Mountiesâ€™ Brian Larence and the Ramsâ€™ Tyler Walsh. This could be a low-scoring series.
The other semifinal series between Division I-Eccleston champion Smithfield (10-8) and Hendricken (14-2-2) could also be closer than what some people may think. Both teams split their regular-season series, each winning on its home ice by one goal, and while the Hawks are 9-0-1 in their last 10 games, the Sentinels are 5-2 in their last seven, with their win over Hendricken highlighting that stretch.
Burrillville (4-11-3) vs. Barrington (6-10-2)
Last season, the Broncos brought out their best hockey near the end of the season and that carried over into the playoffs, where they reached the Division I finals before falling to Barrington. Could history repeat itself over these next couple of weekends?
The Broncos, who have captured state 22 championships during their brilliant history and last claimed the Division I title six years ago, will take on the same Eagles team for the right to play the winner of the Cranston co-op/Coventry semifinal-round series, and if their regular-season series is an indicator, this promises to be a close series that could extend to three games.
Both teams battled to ties in their first two meetings of the season, but the Eagles pinned a 3-0 loss on the Broncos the last time they played each other on Feb. 14.
That loss came in the middle of an ugly four-game losing streak, but the Broncos have really picked up their play over the past two weekends. They beat Division I-Eccleston rivals Coventry and the Cranston co-op team, lost to Mount in overtime, and dropped a 5-2 verdict to Hendricken less than a month after the Hawks blasted them, 12-1.
All eyes will be on the Broncosâ€™ senior co-captains. Chad Stone and Kyle Wilkinson, who were two of the teamâ€™s playoff heroes last winter. Stone was a 20-goal scorer this year, doubling the number of goals of the Eaglesâ€™ top scorer, and Wilkinson could be in line for another stellar performance or two.
The championship series will begin on Saturday, March 15 at 4 p.m. and continue the next afternoon at the same time.
Cumberland (18-0) vs. Middletown (10-7-1)
This series should be said and done in two games, especially with the Clippers enjoying their finest regular season in team history â€“ in one of the toughest North divisions in recent memory â€“ and the Islanders playing in a weak Central division and squeezing out a playoff berth on the final week of the season.
The Clippers posted a 6-1 win over the Islanders in their lone regular-season meeting on Feb. 17, which saw Cumberland dominate play from start to finish and outshoot the Islanders by a 32-10 margin.
Defense has been the name of the game this year for the Clippers, who have allowed just 11 goals this season (a team record), held six opponents to fewer than 11 shots on net, and allowed only one team to score more than one goal against them â€“ and that came in garbage time of a 10-2 victory over two-win Pilgrim.
Offensively, the Clippers are a balanced bunch, with four players with 12 or more goals and Jake Salisbury leading the attack with 18, and folks around the division know how good goalie Leo Lake and defenseman Jaime Casilli have been.
Lincoln (16-2) vs. North Smithfield (12-6)
In a perfect world, the Lions would be the No. 2 seed and playing the Centralâ€™s seventh-seeded Rogers/Tiverton/Rocky Hill co-op team. But because the three division winners (Cumberland, North Kingstown, Prout) automatically occupy the top three berths, that means the Lions are the No. 4 seed and awaiting a difficult matchup with the fifth-seeded Northmen.
The Lions, who claimed the Division II crown last season with a 23-0-1 record, won both ends of their regular-season series with the Northmen by scores of 4-2 and 6-1, and the latter victory marked the only time this season that N.S. lost a game by more than four goals.
The Northmen enjoyed one of their greatest offensive seasons in team history, leading all of Division II with 104 goals and receiving 10 or more from five different players, 20 coming from sophomore Kyle Evangelista.
But the Lions were equally impressive defensively, yielding just 18 goals and getting solid netminding for the second straight year from Chris Leclaire and David Jessey, and they were fourth in the division in scoring with 88 goals, 18 off the stick of senior Mike Enos.
St. Raphael/PCD/Wheeler (11-7) vs. Prout (12-6)
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If youâ€™re looking for a lower seed to advance in the Division II tourney, your best bet is the SRA/PCD squad, which is the sixth seed and entering the playoffs a battle-tested bunch, thanks to playing in the black-and-blue North division.
The locals finished fourth in the North, losing twice to the three teams ahead of them in the standings, the Clippers, Lions, and Northmen.
As for the Crusaders, they claimed the third seed with a 12-6 record that was good enough to win the Central regular-season title. They went 0-4 against the iron of the North in their crossover games and lost to SRA/PCD by a 4-2 score back on Jan. 10.
SRA/PCD has been playing some of its finest hockey down the stretch, and three SRA upperclassmen have been especially impressive, junior Nathan Duffy, who leads the team with 20 goals, senior forward Marc Carrara, and senior goalie Brandon Gribbin. If those three and the rest of the team continue their strong play this weekend, it wonâ€™t be a surprise to see them in next weekâ€™s semifinals.
Follow Eric Benevides on Twitter @EricBen24