This might be Stephen Sheaâ€™s first season as a head coach, but the Mount St. Charles Academy mentor has been around Rhode Islandâ€™s girlsâ€™ hockey scene for the past several years as an assistant coach for the Mounties.
That being said, heâ€™s seen plenty of postseason action, but he doesnâ€™t recall seeing a battle for the state championship as balanced and competitive as the one thatâ€™s unfolding this season.
As expected, his Mounties and the team they defeated in last yearâ€™s state title series, Bay View Academy, are back in the semifinals. But joining them are two teams who he believes have the capabilities to also land in the finals, the Burrillville/Ponaganset co-op team and North Smithfield High.
â€śAt the beginning of the season, all the coaches said there were five teams in the top group of the league,â€ť Shea noted about the semifinalists and La Salle Academy. â€śThese are excellent teams. I couldnâ€™t even guess who was going to be in the finals. Anybody on any given night could do it.â€ť
The Mounties, who at 15-1, are the top seed, will clash with the fifth-seeded Lady Northmen (10-8) in a best-of-three series that get under way tomorrow, and third-seeded Burrillville/Ponaganset (15-3) will face off with the second-seeded Bengals (13-3) in the other series.
In tomorrowâ€™s series openers, the Mounties will battle the Northmen at 7:30 p.m. at Adelard Arena, while the Bengals will host the Broncos at 8:10 at the Cranston Vets Arena.
The action continues on Friday with Burrillville/Ponaganset entertaining Bay View at 8 p.m. at Levy Rink and N.S. hosting MSC at 8:20 p.m. at the Rhode Island Sports Center. If a third and deciding game is needed in either series, it will take place on Sunday at a time and place to be announced.
If thereâ€™s one series most folks donâ€™t think will need a third game, itâ€™s the one pitting the favored Mounties against the Northmen, and thatâ€™s not because the Mounties took both end of their regular-season series by 4-1 scores.
On paper, the Mounties have more depth and the ability to skate four lines if they choose. The Northmen dressed just 16 players for last Saturdayâ€™s playoff game against La Salle and used just two lines.
But Shea isnâ€™t buying what other folks think of his series, nor is he sold on an advantage in depth or a â€śfatigue factorâ€ť that could hinder the Northmen.
â€śWe do have the numbers, and that may help us,â€ť admitted Shea, â€śbut barring penalties, we can each only put six players on the ice at the same time. I donâ€™t see it as being 20 against 16, I see it as six-on-six at any given moment.
â€śWeâ€™ve been proud of our depth and it certainly helped us at times this year, but now another factor kicks in and thatâ€™s the adrenaline factor,â€ť he added. â€śIâ€™m not counting on the fatigue factor because I think adrenaline will kick in, and when you get the adrenaline flowing, anything can happen.â€ť
Shea took in last Saturday nightâ€™s quarterfinal-round, series-clinching 3-2 win by the Northmen over La Salle and liked what he saw, especially in the play of the Northmen, who scored twice late to pull out the win.
â€śIt was a great up-and-down hockey game and I think either team could have really won,â€ť admited Shea. â€śSome people have called it an upset and I donâ€™t think it was that because (N.S.) obviously put 80-something shots on net in two nights.
â€śBut I thought they played really well. We certainly respect them, and I know (coach) Bill Nangle is a great leader for them. They definitely demonstrated that theyâ€™re a worthy opponent.â€ť
The Mounties, who along with the Bengals, earned a quarterfinal-round bye, are less than two weeks removed from their lone defeat of the year, a 6-2 loss to Burrillville/Ponaganset, which storms into the semifinals with wins in 10 of its last 11 games.
â€śBurrillville played a great game,â€ť said Shea. â€śThe first time we played them, I said a number of times to a number of people that that was the probably our toughest game of the season. We beat them 3-1, but it was really a 2-1 game until we scored at the end.
â€śWhen we played them again, things went their way, but they made them go their way. It was tough. They played well, we got off to a sluggish start, and we just never quite got our game going.â€ť
Burrillville/Ponaganset was swept during the regular season by Bay View in two very close contests, losing by 2-1 and 3-1 scores, and Shea anticipates another exciting series between the two sides.
â€śI went to see one of those two games,â€ť added Shea. â€śTheyâ€™re two different teams. I think Burrillvilleâ€™s power is on their offense and I think Bay Viewâ€™s strength is on their defense. You put those two teams against each other and thatâ€™s a very interesting battle. I think it could be a wide-open (series) or it could be very, very tight.â€ť