On Jan. 16, following a 1-1 draw against Arlington, the Burlington High boys’ hockey team was skating on thin ice. The defending Division 1 state champions stood at 2-3-4 through nine games.
On Sunday night, thanks to their 2-1 shootout win over Middlesex League rival Winchester in the Division 1 North final, the 13-6-5 Red Devils will have an opportunity to defend their crown.
Burlington is not alone: Defending Division 2 champ Wilmington High will be back on the TD Garden ice Sunday afternoon shooting for a repeat after handily defeating Danvers, 7-2, in the North final Monday night.
For Burlington, having to grind out the semifinal win was appropriate, given its uphill journey. The turnaround, coincidentally, started against Winchester, a 3-0 win on Jan. 19.
That victory sparked a 9-2-1 stretch that carried the Red Devils through the end of the regular season and into the state tourney, where they eliminated Woburn (4-2) and Melrose (3-0) to earn a return trip to the sectional finals.
What changed for Burlington?
“Attitude. It was all attitude,” said coach Bob Conceison . “A lot of hard work by coaches and players to be positive and to be patient with our young defense. Once we got a couple of wins midseason, they just took off for us.”
The Red Devils followed the lead of their seniors, goalie Derek DeCastro and forwards CJ Grinnell and Joe Berardi , in the second half of the season and the latter stages of Monday night’s classic.
Grinnell was a pest in the offensive zone all night, causing problems for Winchester from the get-go. Berardi scored the lone goal in regulation for Burlington at 2:43 of the third, along with the first goal in the shootout. DeCastro allowed just one goal — his first goal in his last eight periods of play — and one goal in the shootout.
Without the poise and leadership of its veterans, the late-season run would have been highly unlikely.
“We have 10 guys who were returning champions — five or six who played a lot — and they told [the other players] what it meant to be there and what a thrill it was,” said Conceison. “That was definitely there in their motivation. Our leaders, our three captains Derek, CJ, and Berardi, were integral parts of our team.”
Junior forward Joey Scali, who netted the clinching goal in the shootout, agreed, saying “our captains kept us in it — they were huge.
“We just told everyone to hold their heads up high though midseason because we’re the defending state champs,” he said. “Everyone was coming for us.”
Wilmington also used its championship pedigree to its advantage. While many coaches take the approach that “what happened in the past is in the past” or “this is a new team,” coach Steve Scanlon said his Wildcats have embraced last year’s title run and use it all the time.
After graduating eight seniors — three of whom Scanlon called “impact players” — Wilmington started the season talking about their championship.
“In the very beginning of the year when we have our goal-setting meetings, they wanted to be back,” said Scanlon. “They saw [the state final] was St. Patrick’s Day and everybody wanted to be back in the Garden for St. Patrick’s Day. It has been a goal of ours. We know how difficult it is to get back and we just tried to make that a long-term goal and win the little things when we went along — our Christmas Tournament, win our league title — and then it’s a new season.”
Even beyond goal-setting, Scanlon said the Wildcats stuck to the same routine as last year, including taking the same days off from practice and having the same pregame routines. Being creatures of habit “worked for us last year,” he said, “so we figured why not try the same recipe?”
Senior captain Cam Owens went a bit more in-depth on the traditions and superstitions.
“We all leave at the same time, we get to the bus at the same time, do the same things,” he said. “We’ve got the same two songs we play every time before the game – today our boombox was broken so we had to go a cappella. [Sophomore forward John Galasso] belted out a few clutch verses for us, and we won.”
The Wildcats even dyed their hair bleach blond — the trip to the salon lasted four hours — because it worked in last year’s title run.
Owens said his team likes having the defending champion target on its back.
“It helps a lot. The nerves aren’t there as much,” he said. “Right when we come out of the gate nobody has any nerves and everyone is playing their hardest. It’s just like a regular-season game.”
At this point in the season though, it is more than just hockey that wins games, according to Conceison, Burlington’s coach.
“At the end of the year, you have to stick together,” he said, “and have faith in each other and have hope and trust in each other . . . the intangibles. The intangibles won the game [Monday]. We’re going back to the Garden.”
St. Mary’s girls learn
After losing to Arlington Catholic in the Division 1 state final last March, 3-1, the St. Mary’s of Lynn girls went through a transition period. The Spartans graduated just two seniors, but lost a total of seven players from their roster, through transfers to prep school programs or to their public high schools.
As a result, St. Mary’s has five eighth-graders on the varsity roster.
In the first five games of the season, the Spartans faced a gantlet: Notre Dame of Hingham, two-time defending Division 2 champion Duxbury, Division 1 power Woburn, defending Division 1 champ Arlington Catholic, and Hingham, but emerged with a 2-2-1 mark.
Then St. Mary’s ripped off an 11-game unbeaten streak.
“It kind of really highlighted what we needed to work on,” said coach Frank Pagliuca . “But it gave kids that may have not played last year or were new to the program confidence. They were able to see what it would take to compete at that level.”
St. Mary’s defeated Arlington Catholic early on, but the Cougars were the ones to snap the Spartans’ 10-0-1 midseason stretch. After that Feb. 6 blemish, St. Mary’s finished 4-0-2 before defeating Austin Prep and Woburn to return to the championship game.
“Our philosophy has been that this is a different team,” said Pagliuca. “Our initial goal was just to get back into the state tourney in the first place. That said, you learn from past experience and I think the returning girls learned some lessons. We’re looking forward to Sunday.”Pat Bradley can be reached at email@example.com.