PAWTUCKET â€“ Late Saturday night, after his defending state championship team had swept North Smithfield in a Division II Tournament quarterfinal set, Lincoln High head coach Jim Riel indicated his semifinal opponent would be North Kingstown.
Minutes afterward, when reached by phone, Cumberland mentor Mark Andreozzi â€“ whose club had just crushed Middletown, 8-2, to gain another brooming â€“ thought his next foe to be St. Raphael/PCD/Wheeler Co-op, which had captured two straight against 2012-13 D-II finalist Prout.
Both were shocked Monday morning upon discovering that one of the two best-of-three semifinal sets would pair the top-ranked Clippers and fourth-seeded Lions, and that the first two tilts had been slated for Warwick's Thayer Arena on Friday and Saturday nights at 7.
That declaration came from Rhode Island Interscholastic League officials.
Cumberland had earned the top seed for good reason, as it had sailed through its II-North campaign unbeaten at 18-0-0 (it's now 23-0-0 overall). Lincoln, on the other hand, had recorded a 16-2-0 league mark (19-3-0 overall), with its lone two losses coming to Andreozzi's crew with respective 3-2 and 2-1 verdicts.
Given those marks, the top two in the entire division, both coaches had every reason to think they wouldn't face each other. After all, NK had clinched the II-South crown at 14-4-0, while the St. Raphael/PCD/Wheeler Co-op squad (11-7-0) took fourth in II-North behind Cumberland, Lincoln and North Smithfield.
Prior to the playoffs' opening, the Clippers had drawn the No. 1 rank, with the Skippers second, Prout third, the Lions fourth, the Northmen fifth and SPW sixth. Both Andreozzi and Riel figured there would be a re-seeding after the quarterfinals, but â€“ for some odd reason â€“ that didn't occur.
â€śI really thought we were going to play North Kingstown,â€ť Riel stated after the Lions' practice at Lynch Arena Monday afternoon. â€śI couldn't get a straight answer Sunday from assorted people (from the Interscholastic League), and I finally found out it would be Cumberland; my athletic director (Brian Fineberg) told me they were going to stick with the brackets, there wouldn't be a re-seed.
â€śI was surprised because, traditionally, they've re-seeded after the eight playoff (qualifiers) have been whittled down to four,â€ť he continued. â€śAll I heard was they would stick with the (rankings for the semis), meaning we'd remain the fourth seed.
â€śBased on our records, and the outcomes throughout the year, there's no doubt we were the top two teams in the division; it didn't work out that way, but that's what the playoffs are for â€“ to determine the eventual champion. The regular season doesn't mean much now, I guess, but I'll also say our two losses to Cumberland are in the rear-view mirror.â€ť
Like Riel, Andreozzi remained politically correct.
â€śYou've got to play the games no matter what â€“ you've got to play the semifinal round and win it to get to the final, that's the bottom line,â€ť he said. â€śDo I agree with it?â€ť
He hesitated, then offered, â€śIt is what it is â€¦ All three will be at Thayer, and the explanation given to me was that they (RIIL officials) wanted it to be there because all hockey fans should have the opportunity to see it, and Thayer has a larger capacity than Adelard or Lynch (arenas).â€ť
â€śLike I said, the thing is you're going to have to play somebody in the semifinal anyway; there's four teams left, so you have to play that set to get to the final.â€ť
As for the upcoming series, sure to be a barnburner even in Warwick, Riel explained that his Lions had dropped consecutive 2-1 defeats to the Clippers (on Jan. 29 and March 1, respectively) because of costly miscues.
â€śWe've got to toughen up in our defensive zone and make sure the puck comes out clean,â€ť he stated. â€śIf not, they're going to jump all over the turnovers and convert them. They're too good a team, and we can't allow them to maintain pressure in our defensive zone for 15 to 30 seconds; we're just not going to win that fight.
â€śThe first time we played them (at Adelard), we had the chance to get the puck out of our zone three times on one shift alone, and the third resulted in their game-winning goal,â€ť he added. â€śThat came with three minutes left.
â€śOffensively, what we need to do is take advantage of the opportunities that come our way. In both (contests), we had two-on-one breakaways mid to late in the third and didn't even get a shot on net. That's got to change.â€ť
He mentioned that, at Monday's workout, he told his kids they needed to improve in each and every practice this week.
â€śI told the guys we'd need to be even stronger than we had been all year, and that every day this week, we'd have to be sharp for all 60 minutes of practice if we wanted to be sharp for 45 minutes of hockey (in the opener),â€ť he offered. â€śThe kids were really amped up (Monday); they were flying all over the ice, and it was our best practice in a month.
â€śIf we want to beat them, we're going to have to, first, keep turnovers to a minimum, and, second, do a good job of converting our chances,â€ť he continued. â€śHey, we've got Cumberland, our rivals. While we respect them, there's no team we'd rather beat more than them.â€ť
It's unknown if senior co-captain Griffin Hevey (ranked ninth among II-North's top scorers with 13 tallies) will play as he suffered a concussion in the first game against North Smithfield. Apparently, CHS sophomore Jake Salisbury â€“ the team's leading scorer â€“ sustained an injury against Middletown on Saturday night, and his services this weekend are questionable.
The Lions will need to combat the Clippers' strengths, and two include Salisbury and Greg Wellington. The former rates third in points in II-North with 35 (16 goals, 19 assists) and the latter seventh with 29 (12 and 17).
As for Lincoln, Hevey tops the list at No. 7 overall (13 goals, 13 assists, 26 points), with senior Mike Enos tied for 10th (12-11 â€“ 23) and classmate Aaron Fiske 17th (8-13 â€“ 21).
â€śLeo Lake is a really good goaltender,â€ť he said. â€śHe doesn't give up point-blank shots; he always makes the first save and doesn't give up rebounds. When we were successful against them last year (in a semifinal sweep, when the two teams were seeded No. 1 and 4, respectively), we were able to get to the net and pounce on the rebounds.
â€śI still feel confident about our goalie (junior Chris Leclaire),â€ť he added. â€śI think we have the best kid in net in the state. He's been hot the last two months now, and he steps it up in the big moments, just like he did last season against Cumberland and Prout.
â€śWhen we won the state title last year, it gave our returning players the experience and ability to know how to win, but that was last year. These kids have to want to put up their own banner â€¦ I have all the confidence in the world our team will come to play.
â€śWe hate each other on the ice, and that makes for really good hockey. But when all is said and done, I've got a tremendous amount of respect for Mark, his coaching staff and his players, and I know the feeling is mutual.â€ť
Andreozzi claimed his club must continue to play with heart and passion to post a trip to Brown University's Meehan Auditorium the weekend of March 20-21.
â€śIn both games against Lincoln, we played hard for all three periods, and we're going to have to the same this time; we're going to have to convert some goals against Chris, whose a solid goalie,â€ť he noted. â€śWe also attacked the net and moved the puck pretty well, but you really have to battle against a team like Lincoln.
â€śWe're going to have to play well defensively, and keep attacking the neutral zone to keep pressure on them,â€ť he continued. â€śIf you don't play well in all areas against Lincoln, or any other semifinalist for that matter, you could be in trouble, and you won't advance.
â€śLeclaire is definitely one of their strengths, and so our two of their defenseman, (Robbie) Lake and (Tyler) Duquette (a co-captain). Up front, they have Hevey and Enos and a bunch of others who can put the puck in the net.
â€śLincoln's dangerous, they have four or five others who can score. We're going to have to play every minute of every period like it's the last one. This is the semifinals, and you can throw records out the window. Pure and simple, if you don't win, you're done.
â€śI'm resolved to the fact that you have to beat whoever's in front of you. If it's Lincoln, it's Lincoln.
You want to go to the finals? You have to beat them. If not, you're going home.â€ť
When asked if he would address last winter's Lions' sweep with his kids, Andreozzi said only, â€śWe're in the here and now; this has nothing to do with what happened 52 weeks ago. We have the opportunity to go to the finals. That should be our focus.â€ť
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