By Bill Keefe
Editor’s note: This article originally appeared in the May 2011 issue of New England Hockey Journal.
Maybe experience is overrated.
The Boston Junior Bruins of the Empire Junior Hockey League provided evidence for that argument. With the youngest team at the Tier 3 Junior B national tournament, the Bruins triumphed at crunch time, taking three consecutive one-goal games, two of which went beyond regulation, to capture the organization’s first national championship.
Facing teams filled with players old enough to vote, the Bruins were filled with players just starting to shave.
Opponents’ rosters were packed with 1991- and 1992-born players with a couple of 20-year-old, 1990-borns, as well. The Bruins had one ’92, five ’93s and were chock full of ’94s, not to mention five ’95s and a pair of ’96s.
“Everyone counted us out early on when they heard about our roster,” said forward Matt Manzella (Hopkinton, Mass.), one of the Bruins captains and a graybeard as a ’93-born high school senior. “When you think of all the great teams the Junior Bruins have had, we were the most unlikely and the youngest, and we were the ones to get it done.”
Sitting on six losses two months into the season at the end of October, the Bruins lost only once in regulation the rest of the way and only four times overall.
“We had a real close group of guys,” Manzella said. “Everyone came together.”
Manzella played a role in the championship-clinching goal by Mike Weaver (Wakefield, Mass.) in double overtime — a 3-2 victory against the New Hampshire Junior Monarchs on March 29 in Marlboro, Mass. It was the Bruins’ second consecutive overtime win and third consecutive 3-2 victory.
Weaver took a shot on goal, which got steered into the corner. Manzella checked the play and came up with the puck and fired a low shot that led to a bouncing rebound that Weaver swatted home at 9:42 of the fifth period.
“To be honest, I was in the right place at the right time,” the ’94-born Weaver said of his second goal of the national tournament and his 26th of the season. “All year long, (coach) Chris (Masters) would say, ‘Crash the net, crash the net, crash the net.’ So I did. The puck was on edge; I took a whack at it and it went in.”
It was the 62nd shot on goal for the Bruins. Monarchs goalie Drew Case made 59 saves to give his team a chance to claim the crown, but his bag of tricks had its limit.
“The mentality of the game changed in overtime,” said 14-year-old, eighth grader Jack Eichel (Chelmsford, Mass.), who scored the first Bruins goal and assisted on a later tally by Mac Cook (Reading, Mass.). “Everyone was so tired. We played twice the day before. Everyone was thinking every shot is a good shot. Everything in the defensive zone had to be high percentage. Every time there was a chance to shoot the puck, we took the shot.”
The day before, Eichel needed only 53 seconds of overtime to get the Bruins past the Long Island Royals and into the final.
In the defensive zone, Kevin McKernan (Grafton, Mass.) got the puck up toward Eichel, who was covering his point.
“I just tried to get it out and chipped it,” said Eichel, who has been with the Bruins since mite major. “I tried to beat their player to it. He took a bad angle and I got it. I knew their goalie came out far earlier to cut the angle, so I knew if I could go around the net quick enough and wrap it, I could maybe just get it by him.”
While Eichel had an adjustment period earlier in the season, he finished seventh on the team with 36 points (15-21) in the regular season. In the Empire playoffs, he contributed 2-5-7 in seven games before exploding for 9-6-15 in the national tournament. He was the leader in goals and second in points.
“He’s unbelievably skilled,” said Manzella, a four-year Bruin who will move up with Weaver to the EJHL club next year. “He finds way to find the back of net.”
For a team with such a wide variety of ages, the opportunity existed for there to be a lack of chemistry, but like many championship teams, the club had a deep bond and a solid understanding of what had to be done.
“Everyone on the team knew what their role was,” Eichel said. “Everyone sacrificed so much and bought into the system that Chris put together for us. Everyone worked so hard. The year before they had the highest-scoring team in the league. The mentality of the team completely changed and was built around defense and goaltending.”
Besides youth being served, the national title game between league rivals Monarchs and Bruins highlighted the strength of the Empire League and also showcased some New England talent.
The Bruins’ roster featured 20 Massachusetts natives in addition to Glastonbury, Conn., native Collin Britnell, the team’s second-leading regular season scorer with 47 points.
From the information listed on the Monarchs’ roster, 14 New Englanders suited up, including eight from New Hampshire, three from Maine and three from Massachusetts.
The proximity and shared roots played a role in team chemistry, Manzella said.
“It was a wild ride,” he said. “The team kept finding ways to win. We got contributions from everyone in the lineup. Everyone had a real passion for the game. When there was open ice, everyone wanted to stay after practice and just loved being there. It was just a great year.”
Bill Keefe can be reached at email@example.com.
The Walpole Express reached the Tier 3 Junior A national semifinals. The Express went 3-0 in round-robin play before facing the Helena Bighorns, whom they had already beaten, but Helena won the rematch, 4-3. Defensemen Brian Greene (Falmouth, Maine) and Jacob Brightbill led the team in scoring at the national tournament with eight points apiece.
The Northern Cyclones were in the hunt for a semifinal berth but did not qualify with a 1-1-1 round-robin record. Joey Bruckler (Burlington, Mass.) led the Cyclones with four points.
Correction from last month’s notes: The Eastern Junior Hockey League did not send representatives to the Tier 3 Junior A national championships. …
The Atlantic Junior Hockey League announced their season-ending award winners. Boston Bulldog Steve Buco (North Providence, R.I.) won the MVP for his 44-goal, 100-point season, good for his second consecutive scoring title. The Bulldogs’ Chris Lewis was named best defensive forward. Hartford Jr. Wolfpack blueliner Mike Busillo (Wallingford, Conn.) earned best defensive defenseman. Preston Kaye (Orleans, Mass.) of the Northern Cyclones took home best offensive defenseman. The goalie of the year went to Zach Andrews of the Walpole Express. And coach of the year honors went to the Portland Jr. Pirates’ Brad Church. …
Hotchkiss defenseman Wiley Sherman (Greenwich, Conn.) was the first New Englander taken in the USHL Futures Draft for 1995-born players on April 19, when Omaha selected him in the fourth round, with the 56th overall pick.
Five other players with regional ties also were selected in the six-round, 90-pick draft: Phillips Andover D Eddie Ellis (Burlington, Mass.) to Waterloo, fourth round, 60th overall; South Kent D Anthony Florentino (West Roxbury, Mass.) to Indiana, fifth round, 67th overall; Deerfield RW Tyler Kelleher (Longmeadow, Mass.) to Indiana, fifth round, 71st overall; Central Mass. U-16 G Patrick Fraser (Franklin, Mass.) to Indiana, sixth round, 80th overall; and Cushing D Richard Boydto Omaha, sixth round, 86th overall.
The USHL Entry Draft is May 16. …
The Lewiston Maineiacs reached the QMJHL semifinals for the second time and were slated to face overall No. 1 Saint John as New England Hockey Journal went to press. Saint John had 119 points in the 68-game regular season and only lost seven times in regulation.
The Maineiacs dispatched Moncton, 4-1, in the first round for their first playoff series win since 2007. They then went ahead and knocked off Montreal, 4-2.
Michael Chaput was leading the team and fifth in the league through the first two rounds with 18 points in 11 games. Nicholas Championhas been strong in goal with a .922 save percentage, second in the league. …
Lewiston left winger Etienne Brodeurwas named to the second team QMJHL all-star team after a 53-goal, 83-point campaign. …
Forward Dimitry Antipinof the Cape Cod Cubs was named International Junior Hockey League MVP while Shane Forsleyof the New England Stars was the top goalie. In addition to Antipin and Forsley, the other all-league selections were New England Stars forward Danny Loughlinand Boston Blackhawks forward Vadim Kravchenko, and on defense, Brayden Kruschof the Stars and Marek Kepalsof the Blackhawks. …
U.S. NTDP goalie coach Joe Exter (Cranston, R.I.) has been named an assistant coach for the 2012 U.S. National Junior team, his third consecutive selection.