BURRILLVILLE — If you would have told Steve Daigle a month ago that his Burrillville team would play – and be a slight favorite – in the Division I championship series in mid-March at Brown University, the veteran coach would have thought you were crazy and walked away from you.
The Broncos finished the regular season with just one win in their last 11 games and a 4-11-3 mark, hardly a record for any team worthy enough to get into the postseason, never mind earn a spot in a best-of-three title series.
But that’s where the Broncos will be tomorrow when their Division I series with Barrington gets under way at 8:15 p.m. at Meehan Auditorium, playing for a chance to add a “2013” to the championship banners (22 state and five New England) that adorn the wall of their home rink, Levy Arena.
If the Broncos, who are coming off an impressive sweep of their best-of-three semifinal-round series with Cranston West, capture the championship, they will obviously finish their season with eight wins, and that will mark the first time a Division I champion struck gold with just single digits in victories. Moses Brown won the Division I crown last year with just 11, and Cranston West captured the then-tabbed Division I-A title four years ago with 10.
But win totals are the furthest thing from the minds of Daigle and his players. The regular season is history. They picked the perfect time to play their best hockey of the season, and after sweeping Cranston West by scores of 8-2 and 3-0, they know they have a rare golden opportunity to erase what has been mostly a down season with a championship.
“Even though our record isn’t as good as we want it to be, at least the kids have something to play for, versus other years, where that wouldn’t be the case,” said Daigle. “But no complaints here. We’re looking forward to playing this week, and the school’s excited, It wasn’t that exciting a season for us, but it almost seemed like the light bulb came on, and here we go, everyone’s revving up for this championship (series).”
Aside from winning its inaugural Winter Classic on New Year’s Eve with a shootout victory over Lincoln in the finals, as well as a 3-3-1 start to their season, there hasn’t been much excitement.
“Most of the season, we just weren’t happy with our team’s play,” said Daigle. “We weren’t playing as a team. We had more downs than we had ups, and we really weren’t that happy with the progression of the season. But we’re playing our best hockey right now, and what we’re trying to get across to the kids is that it doesn’t matter what happened this year. We knew we were going to be in the playoffs, and we knew we could beat these (Division I-Eccleston) teams because we played all of them close.
“Did we think we’d make it to the finals? We certainly were hoping we would, and now that we’re here, we have a chance to go out there and prove something.”
While the Broncos are advancing to the finals thanks to some spectacular play over the weekend, so are the Eagles, who entered the playoffs as the final seed with a 3-14-1 mark, but stunned Smithfield in their series with an 8-4 victory in the opener and a 2-1 win in double overtime in the clincher.
“(Barrington) has been playing better,” noted Daigle. “They had some strong games in their series against Smithfield and they must be really happy with that. Their biggest problem at the beginning of the year was that they couldn’t score goals, but it looks like they’ve been putting the puck in the net.”
What makes the Broncos a slight favorite in this series is the regular-season success they had over the Eagles. They swept their series, only by narrow margins of 3-1, 5-4, and 3-2 (in overtime), but those games are ancient history as far as Daigle is concerned.
“When we beat them in overtime, they were without (junior standout Patrick) Judge, who was out with a wrist injury, and they were missing a defenseman,” he reported. “They’ve had their share of injuries this year with some of their better players, but I think they’re at full strength now.”
The top player on the Eagles is senior forward John Kraunelis, who leads the team in scoring with 17 goals and nine assists. Junior center Brett Fay also has nine goals and a dozen assists, and he and Kraunelis had big performances in their series with the Sentinels.
The Broncos, meanwhile, have their share of scoring threats that are spread out among their three lines.
“We have three equal lines that we can put out there,” said Daigle. “The last four or five games, we changed up the lines a little bit and we finally found a third line that’s really come together. Now we feel comfortable playing three good lines and we hadn’t been able to do that all year.”
The first line may be the best underclassman one in the state with sophomore Chad Stone (team-high 10 goals and 11 assists) and freshmen Riley Tupper and Tyler Kearney (nine goals), and the second line features seniors Evan Lafond (eight goals) and Dan Takita and junior Tom Libby. The third line, which contributed to the Broncos’ attack in the series with the Falcons, contains senior Drew Buxton, junior Zach Bertholic, and a mix of seniors Jacob Hagerty and Neven Laprade.
The defensemen are also solid with seniors and four-year starters Mitch Lafond and Blake Boutiette teaming up with sophomores Nick Koprusak and Ben Robinson, as well as junior Tyler Gautreau, and junior goaltender Kyle Wilkinson has sparkled in his first season as a starter.
“Kyle had a great series against Cranston West,” added Daigle. “He might have had one or two off-games this whole year, but he’s really played well this season. That’s probably the thing I’ve been most happy with this season, his play, because I wasn’t sure going into the season what was going to happen because he just didn’t have any [varsity] experience.”
While Daigle is happy to see his team bounce back and reach the championship series, he hoped at the beginning of the season that his team could sport the best record out of all the Division I public-school teams like the Broncos did a season ago when they posted a 13-5 mark.
But the Broncos’ reward for their fantastic season was a berth in the State Championship semifinals opposite eventual champion Bishop Hendricken, which beat them by close scores of 4-2 and 3-2.
This season, Coventry earned the unofficial “public school” championship by posting a 12-6 mark, but they also went down in two games in the semifinals, suffering back-to-back, three-goal losses to Mount St. Charles.
“Our goal every year is to at least be the top public school team,” said Daigle. “We didn’t do it, but now Coventry’s home with nothing and here we are going to Brown. We were in that boat last year. You have a great year, maybe lose one or two games to the other public schools like we did last year, and you’re good enough to play in that upper tier and face the private schools, get beat, and go home. That’s the only thing that’s really not fair about it, but this year, I’m not complaining about it.”
Instead, Daigle will be leading the Broncos into the finals for the first time since 2008, when Burrillville defeated Barrington to claim the Division I-A title at Providence College’s Schneider Arena. Does he have any words of wisdom for his players who will be playing for a championship for their very first time in their varsity careers?
“The biggest things are to stay focused and to be disciplined,” he added. “Keep your composure, that’s what we tell them every game, you have to keep your composure. If we can do that, we’ll be fine.”