NORTH SMITHFIELD — When one speaks of Division II-North, the conversation immediately addresses the rivalry between Lincoln, the defending state D-II champion and perennial contender, and Cumberland, always solid but a team that hasn't been able to “get over the top” in recent years.
The same holds true this campaign, though the Clippers did snatch a key victory over the Lions last week to remain unbeaten in league action at 13-0-0 (14-0-0 overall).
The Lions, on the other hand, have dropped only two tilts all winter, the other a blowout, non-league decision to Medfield, Mass. during the Burrillville Winter Classic. They will enter this weekend at 14-2-0 overall (13-1-0 in league).
Lost in the II-North conversation, however, is Paul Nadeau's North Smithfield bunch, which quietly has produced a 9-4-0 mark (10-5-0 overall). It currently sits in third place, one game ahead of St. Raphael/PCD/Wheeler Co-op.
It's true that the Northmen suffered a 4-2 defeat to Lincoln back on Dec. 21, and later a 5-1 verdict to Cumberland on Jan. 11, but also have manufactured a few superlative triumphs. They eked out a 5-4 win over Division I foe Burrillville during its tournament on Dec. 30, then played fellow D-I representative Barrington tough before succumbing, 5-4, the next afternoon.
In addition, Nadeau's kids battled Division II-Central's top team, Prout, to overtime before sustaining a 4-3 loss on Jan. 31, but rebounded the following day to down South Kingstown (second place in II-South) by a 6-4 count.
Exactly 24 hours later, they again played extremely well before dropping a 3-1 verdict to II-Central leader North Kingstown.
When asked if he felt his Northmen hadn't received the kind of respect it deserves, especially given the fact they play in the same league as the two aforementioned powerhouses, Nadeau responded like this: “That's definitely the sense, and sometimes it's hard,” he confessed. “You look at the other divisions, and it's like we could be right there in first place, or at least second. It would be nice to sit in that top spot, but – at the same time – we don't mind the lack of attention.
“I keep telling the guys that it's not about how we're playing now but how we're doing at the end of the season,” he added. “Yes, Cumberland and Lincoln have set the bar high, no question, but that only forces us to strive to be better. We need to always be looking ahead and trying to improve not only every game, but every day as well.
“I will say this: These kids aren't intimidated one bit by Lincoln or Cumberland. You may think they might be, but these guys have grown up playing hockey together. They respect those players (from the Lions and Clippers), but they know they deserve to be in the same rink with them. There's no 'awe' factor involved at all.
“Right now, we're a little more than two-thirds of the way through the season, and I definitely think we're better than we were earlier. It shows in our record; we're right there. I didn't think we'd get this kind of offensive production – I mean, we've scored 83 goals in 13 league games, and I think that leads II-North. We also have four guys with 20 points or more.”
(It does, as both Lincoln and Cumberland have notched 73).
Sophomore forward Kyle Evangelista leads the team in points with 32 (15 tallies, 17 assists), while classmates Riley Boucher (11 goals, 17 feeds) and Matt Pasquariello (six tallies, 18 assists) are right behind him.
Then there's senior forward and captain Dylan Narodowy, who has posted 23 points, courtesy of eight goals and 15 feeds.
“That has kind of surprised me; I knew our sophomores were talented, but I didn't (forecast) them to be so dominant offensively,” Nadeau stated. “They're playing against kids a year or two older, and they've got more experience, but my assistants (Mike Salisbury and James Decelles) have done a great job with the younger kids.
“They've helped fine-tune some of aspects of their game – getting open, passing, proper spacing, understanding faceoff scenarios, etc.
“They've really helped these kids become attuned to playing varsity hockey. Kyle may lead the state, never mind the division, in goals, and the other guys have stepped it up … One of the biggest things is I've seen a fantastic collective attitude among the guys, and that's so important.
“They seem to genuinely like each other, and they love hockey,” he added. “We're there at the (Northern Rhode Island Sports Center) rink early, from 5:20-6:50 in the morning twice a week, but they don't mind practicing at those times. Before they start, they're in there playing music, talking and whatever, and they're ready to work.
“Honestly, I'm the one who walks in there kind of dragging my feet. I have to give Dylan a lot of credit. As the captain, he keeps the guys together, keeps them focused. He's proud to be a part of the program, and makes sure the others are, too. He's doing a great job as captain, helping everyone remain positive in the locker room and on the ice.
“He's not a loud kid, but he leads by example, and the underclassmen look up to him. He's been a standout leader.”
He said the same about his two senior assistant captains, forward Ian Bissonnette and defenseman Will Degnan.
“They're both doing pretty well,” he explained. “Ian's got 12 goals and three assists, and Will hasn't played a ton before this year, but he was elected an assistant captain by his peers. He's hard-working, accountable and truly a key guy in our defensive corps right now.”
Among the other offensive stalwarts: Juniors Ben Stone, Tom Mowry and Brad Shatraw; senior Matt Christie; and sophomore Noah Menard.
As for defense, it all starts with junior Mark Pasquariello, who ranks eighth among all goaltenders in Rhode Island with a 2.36 goals against average. In 10 contests, he's surrendered only 21 goals and made 152 saves in exactly 400 minutes.
To be fair, he's had a lot of help in that zone, courtesy of Degnan; fellow senior Conor Dispirito; junior Jake Decelles; and sophomores Matthew Barrette, Andrew Labelle, Josh Labonte, Zachary Rachine and Nick Degnan.
Let's put it this way: If the campaign ended today, North Smithfield would clinch either the fourth or fifth spot in the eight-team, division-wide tourney. Naturally, the Clippers and Lions would be the top seeds0, followed by North Kingstown (10-4-0). The Northmen and Prout both are 9-4-0, while Middletown (second place in II-Central) is 8-4-1; St. Raphael/PCD/Wheeler (fourth in II-North) 8-5-0; South Kingstown (second in II-South); and Rogers/Tiverton/Rocky Hill Co-op (third in II-Central) 7-6-1.
“I think there's a good chance we'll make the playoffs, but we still have to face Cumberland, Lincoln and St. Raphael/PCD/Wheeler once each, and we've got Portsmouth and Pilgrim this weekend,” Nadeau said. “Compared to Cumberland and Lincoln, we are the dark horse, but if you ask any of the kids in our locker room, they'll just say, 'We don't care who we're playing. We're ready to go!'
“We're definitely not afraid to face anyone in our division, regardless of it being someone from the North, South or Central,” he continued. “I tell the guys all the time that we just have to focus on the task at hand, take it one game at a time and try to win as many games as possible.
“It's really not rocket science. We just have to play as hard and as smart as we can as a unit. Everyone's attention is on Cumberland and Lincoln, and it should be, but who doesn't like playing the dark horse? We don't mind. Hopefully, that will drive us even more.”