Good habits can’t be learned overnight. While it’s possible to build a good hockey club quickly, a team has a way of coming together if it can grow and mature over time.
For Salem, N.H., the early success of the 2013-14 season seems to have grown from the seeds sown over the past two seasons. The Blue Devils (9-1 through Jan. 20) are among the top clubs in Division 1 in the Granite State. They’ve returned a number of players who saw varsity ice as underclassmen when the team won 11 and 12 games, respectively, and bowed out in the playoff quarterfinals.
This year, that mix of mature veterans and new faces is paying off.
“We lost our share of one-goal and overtime games last year, and this year we seem to be winning those,” said Salem coach Mark McGinn. “We’ve had some pretty good teams the last few years that didn’t stay healthy, and so far we have been, and that helps, too.”
Solid goaltending from Sam McDonald has played a role in Salem’s fast start. McDonald has good technique, quick feet and tremendous athleticism that takes over when the play breaks down, McGinn said. The Blue Devils allow an average of under two goals per game, and he’s been strong in pressure situations. Salem is 4-0 in one-goal games, and the ability to close out those contests is a credit to a group that’s playing hard for three periods, in three zones.
“The team has really come together, and we’ve all bought in to what the coach is telling us,” said Brian Frazier, a forward and one of Salem’s captains. “When everybody’s on the same page and working hard, I think that translates to how we perform in the games.”
The Blue Devils are built around speed. They have one of the top defensemen in New Hampshire in Paul Antkowiak and another formidable puck mover in Alex Ring. Their ability to transition feeds the offense, which has been led by emerging forward Kyle Nagri.
Playing with Frazier and Chris Lemay, Nagri is leading Salem in goals after transferring back from private school. “We all play the same style of hockey, and that’s what’s been clicking for us,” said Frazier. “My linemates are both skilled, hard-working players, and I think it’s been fun skating with them.”
Salem was 6-1 and on top of the state’s Division 1 standings at press time. The Blue Devils have beaten rivals and fellow contenders like Londonderry, Bishop Guertin, Pinkerton and Trinity. They also have plenty of challenges ahead before the playoffs, as they face most of them a second time and will also play defending champion Manchester Memorial.
“The league is so open this year that as a team you have to come to the rink every night and put it out there. This group has been doing that,” said McGinn, who has been at Salem’s helm for 15 seasons and will hit career win No. 200 if the Blue Devils win 12 games this winter.
“You can’t have any lulls, especially when teams see that you’re in one of those top three positions. They’re going to come hard at you, and if you let down for a period, you can lose.”
Out of state, the Blue Devils own wins over two of the top teams in Maine: Lewiston and St. Dom’s. They also topped Mansfield out of Massachusetts before getting into the iron of their in-state schedule, making sure they were battle tested.
Beyond the top line, Kyle Svensen and Cody Soucy are contributing with some timely goals. That gives the Blue Devils important depth; the opposition can’t focus on shutting down one line because the scoring can come from different combinations, including the back end.
“It’s a huge part of our success,” Frazier said of Salem’s depth. “We don’t have that one superstar; we all just work together and try to take care of the defensive zone. We know if we do that, the offense will come.”
Frazier shares the captain’s duties with Soucy and Antkowiak. The trio has been immense in the locker room for the Blue Devils.
“They all bring a mix of leadership. They can be vocal and can lead by example. They’re a great fit together,” McGinn said of his captains. “When things get tight, they react in a way that gets the other guys going.”
Salem’s other seniors are Jake Burns and Jake Bartlett on defense and Dan Barbin up front. Alex Breen and Ashley Zannini are senior girls on the team as well — the first time Salem’s had female players in eight years.
“I think in all aspects of the game so far we’ve been a pretty complete team,” said McGinn. “We have three lines we can put out there, a solid defense and good goaltending. We just have to keep working at it.”
Having lost in the playoff
quarterfinals each of the last two seasons,
Salem would certainly like to go further this year. The Blue Devils plan to do that with the same blue-collar type of work that’s carried them this far.
“Our goals going forward are to keep working hard and trying to put three solid periods together,” said Frazier. “One game at a time.”