NHIAA Hockey Championships: Bedford-Merrimack looks like a good one
Defending state champion Bedford (15-3-2) will put its Division II boys' hockey crown on the line against top-ranked Merrimack (18-2) in the Division II championship slated for Saturday at 2:30 p.m. at Verizon Wireless Arena in Manchester.
The contest is one of four title games set for Saturday at the Verizon. The other games feature the girls' matchup pitting Hanover against Oyster River at 10 a.m., the Division III tilt between Berlin and John Stark/Hopkinton at 12:15, and the 4:30 Division I final between Manchester Central and Manchester Memorial.
Bedford head coach Marty Myers believes his team turned the corner on Feb. 20 with a 5-1 win against Goffstown. After that, the Bulldogs closed out the regular season strong with back-to-back wins, 2-1 and 3-1, against top-ranked Merrimack. It was the only two losses of the season for the Tomahawks (18-2) who are 48-7-1 combined over the last three seasons.
"Bedford is a big and fast aggressive team and they also have 11 seniors," said Merrimack coach Kurt Mithoefer, who doesn't think his team is the underdog Saturday. "Bedford had our number in the regular season, but we're coming off two very good (playoff) wins against Goffstown and Bow. We're going into Saturday's game with a great deal of confidence coming off those wins."
Bedford coach Marty Myers said Merrimack has an explosive team. "They love to play an up-tempo game and we've got to play good defense," said Myers. "Backchecking and forechecking on our part will be important."
Merrimack possesses the top two point leaders in Division II. During the regular season, Connor Powell (32 goals, 23 assists) and Dom Valluzzi (20 goals, 24 assists) led the pack. Valluzzi and goalie Brett Glendye are the lone two seniors on this year's team. Bedford will be led by Kurt Mitchell and Christopher Viola.
Move over Ken Roberge. There's a new single-season goal-scoring champion in the state.
Connor Jewett, a junior forward who has 60 goals this season, will lead top-ranked and undefeated Berlin (20-0) against John Stark/Hopkinton.
In 1978, Manchester Memorial won its first Division I state title and Roberge was a big part of that season when he established the state single-season goals record with 56.
This year, in Berlin's first season in Division III, Jewett finished the regular season with 56 goals and surpassed Roberge's mark with two goals in a 17-2 quarterfinal win against Portsmouth. He scored goals No. 59 and 60 Wednesday in a 5-2 win against Kennett of Conway in the semifinals at Concord's Everett Arena.
Berlin coach Mike Poulin said Jewett probably wouldn't have broken Roberge's mark had his program remained in Division I. "But he's still an outstanding player who did have 51 points combined in his first two seasons on the Division I level," said Poulin. "This year he just busted out. He's got great hands and is very elusive and shifty with the puck. He's definitely on many people's radar."
Berlin's status as Hockey Town USA has faded since its last state championship win in 1976. Since then, the proud Mountaineers have added just three runner-up crowns to their trophy case and the famed "Hockey Town USA" banner is no longer displayed in Berlin, which won nine state titles and 16 runner-up trophies from 1949 to 1976.
"That banner wasn't around when I played (for Berlin) in the early 90s," said Poulin. "I don't believe we can restore the era that saw Berlin win all those titles. We're now a school with 420 kids and not 600 or higher when I played. But the kids I coach now are trying to build something special moving forward. I can't put into words just how important being in the finals again and having a chance to win the state title (since 1976) is to our community."
Poulin was an assistant coach in 2006 when Berlin played Hanover for the Division I title at Verizon Wireless Arena. Hanover won that game, 6-3.
"There's a great crowd from both towns and I can remember seeing a sea of red jerseys worn by our fans which stretched from end to end (in the lower bowl)," said Poulin. "I'm anticipating the same thing Saturday and can't wait to see the look on our players' faces when they see the support from our fans."
Jewett (37 assists, 97 total points this season) and Justin Vien, who scored 22 goals and added 25 assists during the regular season, will be a tough pair to stop. John Stark/Hopkinton, led by Simon Becka (18 goals, 12 assists) and Robbie Ferguson (13 goals, 11 assists), lost to Berlin 8-2 during the regular season.
"That game means nothing now," said Poulin. "They have a deep team which can throw three quality lines at you. They're playing very good hockey right now."
The girls' championship, pitting three-time defending state champion Hanover (19-0) and third-ranked Oyster River (15-4-1), begins at 10 a.m. in a rematch of the 2011 title game won the Marauders, 7-4.
Hanover has won four of the five state championship games since the league was established in 2008. Hanover beat Oyster River twice during the regular season, 4-1 and 1-0.