There was a time, not too long ago, when the Brookline boys’ hockey team would have been happy to take a point of any kind out of a Bay State Conference game.
That the Warriors had to battle back for a 2-2 tie Wednesday night against BSC rival Newton North, and were somewhat disappointed after the fact, shows how much expectations around the program have changed.
Brookline is 8-6-1 overall and on pace for its best overall season in nearly three decades.
“We still have growing pains,” fourth-year coach Michael Yanovitch said. “For years this team has learned how to lose, but finally the last few years this team has learned how to win.”
Yanovitch says the program was in “a dark place” when he took over, with rumblings and questions about whether it could survive. But he said he was able to get the Warriors to buy into a system of discipline and working twice as hard to be able to compete with more talented opponents.
The results, he said, are reflected in this year’s leadership group that has been through the climb the last four years.
“I can’t even begin to say the difference, mentality-wise,” senior captain Colin Finnegan said. “My freshman year it was just such a losing mentality, and then progressively each year every kid that’s here has kind of gotten a taste of the winning. And I think this year it’s really taken off. Everyone’s bought in, you’ve seen that in the record, you’ve seen that in the games against tougher teams.”
An influx of talent certainly helps. Sophomore Grayson Badger is one of the top scorers in the Bay State, a fast skater along with junior Aidan Chin on the top line with Finnegan. Junior captain Ellis Vish has transitioned back to defense and become a reliable puck-mover, particularly with defenseman Jack O’Brien, a junior captain out of the lineup as the Warriors recover from a rash of illness and injuries.
Perhaps the biggest addition is senior goalie Gil Markman, who previously played at Pope Francis (Chicopee) but transferred to Brookline late last season.
“He’s been a blessing,” Yanovitch said. “He’s a great kid, great goalie.”
There were early indications this season would be different. The Warriors opened the season by beating Quincy, then hung tough in a 2-0 loss to Braintree. A week later they scored a 4-1 win against Newton North, their first against their neighboring rival since the 2004-05 season.
The big eye-opener was last Saturday’s 1-0 conquest of Needham, the first time the Warriors had beaten the Rockets since 1994, spanning more than 40 meetings.
“They were absolutely ecstatic. It was kind of the next step for us to go up that hill a little bit more and get out of the dark place where we were,” Yanovitch said. “After 20-plus years of these kids being the basement-dwellers, it was always ‘point night.’ No matter who we played it was ‘point night’ for the other team. We’re finally in a place where we’re competing, we’re in it, it’s a great atmosphere all around.”
Said Finnegan: “We know the win against Needham is something a lot of people weren’t expecting. We haven’t really given them any reason to expect it in the past. But there’s still so much hockey to play. We have a lot we think we have left to do this season. We know it’s really important that we’ve gotten these games, but it’s more important to focus on what’s ahead of us.”
As the lone Division 2 team in the Bay State, Brookline already has qualified for the postseason under the MIAA’s “Sullivan rule” — a route the Warriors also took last season. But they would like to post double-digit wins for the first time since 2002, and perhaps the most since the 1991 squad that finished 18-3-0.
“It’s gotten us there in the past and it’s nice to have it there as a fallback, but obviously we want to earn a little respect for ourselves and the program,” Finnegan said. “You can do that part of the way with the ‘Sullivan rule,’ but getting to 50 percent of our games is the way we want to finish the job. We’ll feel like we earned it.”
■ Bourne coach Frank Carpenito has a routine of giving out game pucks to his players for first career goals, milestones and other significant achievements. But Carpenito admitted this week he never had a similar award for a goalie.
Canalmen senior Kyle McGuire didn’t exactly take matters into his own hands, but in a roundabout way he got his first game puck. McGuire was credited with Bourne’s final goal in Monday’s 4-1 victory against Old Rochester/Fairhaven.
Unlike Nashville Predators goalie Pekka Rinne, who recently fired a puck the length of the ice into a vacated net, McGuire’s goal came in a way many other goalies throughout all levels of hockey have “scored” in the past. With the ORR/Fairhaven goalie pulled for an extra attacker — Bourne also was serving a penalty, so it was 6-on-4 — McGuire made a save and the Bulldogs tried to get the puck back to the point, only to miss the connection as it slid into the empty net at the other end.
“Kyle being Kyle, he just kind of leaned back on the net and said, ‘Phew, we’re up 4-1, so we’re definitely going to get the win at this point,’ ” Carpenito said.
Only when they tried to make sense of what had just happened did Carpenito and the Canalmen figure it out. That was confirmed when he was handed the game sheet by the officials in the locker room postgame.
“They went nuts,” Carpenito said of his team, noting McGuire’s more traditional role — his goaltending — has kept the 6-8-0 Canalmen alive for a playoff berth.
“The kid’s done everything for us,” Carpenito added. “We basically lost five games by a goal, so he’s kept us in it the whole season.”
Former Milton goalie Mark Guerra was credited with a similar goal last season. While there are rumblings of others, the only other confirmed goal by an MIAA netminder happened in 1986 when Sean Hart of Marblehead collected a puck on his way to the bench on a delayed penalty, fired it down the ice and watched it take a weird hop into the net when the opposing goalie came out to play it.
■ Bishop Fenwick made some history of its own Wednesday night and also shook up the Catholic Central League race at the same time.
The Crusaders’ 3-1 victory against St. Mary’s was their first against the Spartans since Jan. 5, 2002. St. Mary’s had been 24-0-1 in its last 25 games in the series before this week.
At 4-1-1, Fenwick also controls its fate in the CCL race heading into Saturday’s showdown with current leader Austin Prep (6-2-1 CCL) at Stoneham Arena. Fenwick, which is enjoying its best season since moving up to the CCL’s highest division in 2011-12, also faces St. Mary’s again Feb. 15.
Games to Watch
Saturday, Hingham at Pope Francis (Olympia Ice Center, 11:40 a.m.) — The Harbormen could make a big statement in a push for a Super Eight berth when they head to West Springfield to face the Cardinals.
Saturday, Masconomet at Triton (Graf Memorial Rink, 2 p.m.) — The visiting Chieftains could lock up the Cape Ann League with a win against the Vikings in a matchup of two of the top teams in Div. 2 North.
Saturday, Xaverian at Catholic Memorial (Warrior Ice Arena, 6 p.m.) — The host Knights can win the Catholic Conference if they avoid a loss in their last three league games.
Wednesday, Tewksbury at Boston Latin (Murphy Skating Rink, 4 p.m.) — A rematch of last year’s Division 2 North final, the visiting Redmen are unbeaten in their last seven since falling to the Wolfpack.
Wednesday, BC High at Arlington, (Ed Burns Arena, 4:10 p.m.) — Another matchup of potential Super Eight combatants between the teams that have combined for the last three championships.
Jim Clark can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.