Wahconah seeks first-ever state hockey crown
Dan Flynn believes in the power of the banana -- but not for its nutritional purposes.
The banana that Flynn and his fellow Wahconah hockey players hold sacred is cold, withered and sitting in the bed of teammate Brett Pecor's truck. It's been there since the first win of the Warriors' current 13-game streak, and Flynn said it will stay there for Thursday night's MIAA Division III-A state championship game.
"We praise that, and hopefully it gives us some more luck," Flynn said. "No one touches it. People take looks. We know it's there, and we praise it."
It was more than an old banana, though, that got Wahconah on the ice for tonight's championship game against Central Mass. champion North Middlesex. To win the school's first-ever Western Mass. championship, the Warriors needed their best output on both offense and defense -- as well as a flair for the dramatic.
Down 6-3 after two periods in the sectional title game, thanks to Chicopee's goal-scoring bonanza in the final 3 minutes of the period, Wahconah was forced to rally with four goals in the climactic third to win 7-6.
Once Andrew Beaudoin's back-handed goal gave Wahconah that one-goal lead, though, the Warriors got defensive in front of goalie Roger Stedman to hold the lead. A number of them employed a tactic that Warriors coach Don Disbrow wouldn't normally let them use, but allowed due to the circumstances -- lying down in front of a shot and absorbing the blow with their bodies.
"There's a skill involved in that," Disbrow said. "Not all kids can do that, and they're not all willing to do that. The two forwards we had out there at the time [Flynn and Beaudoin] are the two who are willing to do it, and they're good at it.
"I'm not a big fan at this level of having kids do that throughout the season. We've had that discussion as a coaching staff. I just think there's probably too much risk for kids. When you get to this point, and you're trying to win a championship -- that was said in our huddle in the last timeout; ‘You're going to have to go down and block some shots' -- I think our two forwards got one and our defensemen got one."
Needless to say, Disbrow hopes his players don't have to resort to that tactic against North Middlesex on Thursday. Faceoff at Springfield's MassMutual Center is set for 7:30 p.m.
The Patriots (18-3-2), under first-year head coach Mike McCarthy, beat Coughlin Conference foe Lunenburg/Ayer-Shirley on Monday for the Central Mass. crown. Like the Warriors, they come in with an extended win streak -- 10 to Wahconah's 13 -- and like Wahconah, they have a number of different players who are capable of scoring.
Junior forward Ryan McCarthy leads the charge. The team's leading scorer in the regular season, McCarthy scored North Middlesex's third goal in a 3-2 win in Monday's sectional title game. Forwards Josh Miller and Danny McNamara are also prone to lighting the lamp.
Disbrow and his staff scouted Monday's Central Mass. title game, and the head coach thinks the teams are evenly matched with North Middlesex having a solid defense to back its offensive output.
"They are strong defensively, and they've got a line that can score," he said. "Going into the scouting and watching that game, we weren't sure what to expect. We thought they might be a little better than they were, but I think it's going to be a hell of a game.
"I'd like to think we have a little more offense, but that's yet to be determined."
As last week's Western Mass. title game showed, the Wahconah offense is capable of firing up at any time. Top-line center Hjalmar Gustafsson was one of the beneficiaries of the Warriors' advances in the third period, scoring the tying goal 5:35 into the period.
Gustafsson had been held in check throughout sectionals when it came to scoring, but picked up two goals in the title game as well as an assist on the go-ahead goal.
"I think Hjalmar just stepped up his game and took control," Flynn said. "He's a star. He didn't want the season to end, and he wanted to show everyone what he had."
So did the Warriors -- and they did it with speed and mismatches borne of that speed. Wahconah used odd-man rushes to their advantage on almost every goal, with both the ‘Blue' and ‘Orange' lines finding ways to score. Jeff Hancock was the big gun on the ‘Orange' line, scoring twice in the title game.
"Coach Disbrow really keyed on getting drives to the net," Flynn said. "Our odd-man rushes really put Chicopee on their heels."
That speed goes both ways -- as in both ends of the ice. Wahconah can get back on defense and back-check just as well as it can forecheck and push mismatches in the offensive zone.
Disbrow said he hasn't had a team that can defend as well as this one.
"When you throw those elements into the mix, that makes you much more difficult to play against," he said. "You can have all the offense in the world, but you have to keep the puck out of the net."
That job will also fall to Stedman, who was ambushed late in the second period of the title game but responded with a promise to his teammates -- one he backed up in the third.
"Once we got into the locker room, we were all pretty upset about what happened," Flynn said. "I remember Roger [making] a promise with us that he'd keep the puck out of the net [if] we'd score four."
The Warriors took the weekend and Monday off, and practiced in North Adams on Tuesday and Wednesday, but didn't push things too much.
That, they're saving for Thursday night.
"We can play with anyone in the state," Flynn said. "It doesn't matter how big of a school they are, how senior-dependent a team is, anything like that."
And it's safe to say that North Middlesex probably doesn't have a banana handy.
"There's something special about that banana," Flynn said.
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