WOONSOCKET --- Not many high school hockey coaches get their kicks out of putting together a non-league schedule as grueling and competitive as the one Mount St. Charles Academy coach Dave Belisle rolls out every year.
He always starts it off with the team’s annual post-Christmas Holiday Face-Off tournament, which attracts some of the best talent in the Northeast. He then sprinkles in a couple of tough opponents over the next 4-5 weeks, such as two-time Connecticut state champion Hamden High last Wednesday.
And Belisle finishes the non-league slate off with the piece de resistance, an epic showdown against Massachusetts power Catholic Memorial High.
Local fans won’t have to wait very long to see that battle, but they may have to show up to it a little earlier than expected. The mighty Knights will storm into Adelard Arena this afternoon for a 4:30 p.m. duel with the Mounties.
The Mounties, who are 5-0 in non-league games this season, will try to end that schedule unbeaten for the first time in a number of years, but in order to do that, they will have to top a program that has savored a history as rich as their own.
The Knights have won 20 Catholic Conference championships (arguably the state‘s toughest division), 17 state championships (including four of the last eight Division IA Super Eight crowns), and six national titles.
And like the Mounties, the Knights have seen some of their alumni excel in the NHL, such as former Boston Bruins forward Ted Donato, former Bruins and Montreal Canadiens enforcer Chris Nilan, and Calder Trophy (Rookie of the Year) winner and former veteran goaltender Jim Carey.
“We always play them toward the end of the year,” offered Belisle. “We both purposely (schedule the game late) to get us ready for our playoffs. We want to play the best, so we always settled on a date in the middle of February.
“I really enjoy playing Catholic Memorial and I foresee another battle here. It’s going to be another close game -- hard-fought and exciting for the fans.”
The Knights would dearly love to defeat the Mounties, especially since they well remember their last two losses to them.
Two years ago, on their way to claiming their second Super Eight crown in a row, the Knights suffered their most lopsided defeat of the year in a 6-2 loss to the Mounties. That setback dropped the West Roxbury school from No. 1 to No. 3 in the Eastern Mass. polls.
And last season, at Boston University’s Walter Brown Arena, the Mounties eked out a 2-1 victory that saw Trevor Plante score both goals, including the game-winner with 3:49 to play in the contest, and MSC stave off a ferocious six-man attack by the Knights in its zone for the final 96 seconds.
“That was a great hockey game,” noted Belisle. “It was no different than our past games. It was a very, very tight game and both goaltenders played very well that day.”
While the Mounties are enjoying another successful year that has seen them produce a 14-1-1 mark against their Division I peers and clinch a share of the regular-season title last weekend by beating Burrillville High, 8-1, the Knights, who are ranked sixth in the Eastern Mass. polls, have been struggling as of late.
The Knights lost both their games last week to fourth-ranked St. John’s Prep and fifth-ranked Boston College High, and surprisingly, own a 7-7-1 record that has them a point out of last place in the Catholic Conference.
Like the Mounties, the Knights also tackle a difficult out-of-state schedule, and it features two of MSC’s division rivals, Bishop Hendricken High and La Salle Academy, Connecticut powerhouse Fairfield College Prep, and the Delbarton School of Morristown, N.J.
But unlike the Mounties, there are no weak sisters on their in-state schedule. They topped four teams ranked in the top 10 (Hingham, B.C. High, Central Catholic, and Xaverian) and dueled top-ranked Malden Catholic to a 1-1 tie.
“We scrimmaged them earlier in the year, so we know they’re good,” Belisle said. “They have a young group, so what we saw in December will certainly not be what we’re going to see now. They’re much better; they tied Malden Catholic and beat some very good teams.”
There are some players worth watching on the Knights. They may have one of the premier defensemen in their state in Marc Hetnik and best goaltenders in the Boston area in Tommy Knox. Chris Stathopoulos (10 goals) and Liam Coughlin (9) are the Knights’ top two scorers.
“They’re relentless,” said Belisle. “They can shoot the puck and put it in the net. They’ve always been well-coached, so they’re not going to give you a lot. You have to earn everything, and with them, it’s all about battles. This is a small rink, and there’s going to be a lot of battles going on.”
Despite scheduling the game in the afternoon (MSC’s only matinee game of the year), Belisle is anticipating a packed house in his home rink. And while he knows some fans will have to step out of work early to catch the opening faceoff, he hopes to see some of the team’s younger supporters in the crowd.
“Hopefully, we get more of the youth hockey kids here,” said Belisle. “This should be a very good hockey game. We’re both skating and passing hockey clubs, so it’s going to be fun to watch.”