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Ian Clark's High School Hockey: Sprint to the finish

IT’S win or go home time in NHIAA hockey.

Playoff hockey begins in Division I and II today with four preliminary round games and then continues on Saturday with quarterfinal action in DI and DII as well as Division III and the girls’ division.

Tonight’s Division I matchups feature No. 8 Nashua North (8-8-1) hosting No. 9 Manchester Memorial (7-8-3) at 8:10 p.m. at Conway Arena and No. 7 Pinkerton Academy of Derry (8-8-2) hosting No. 10 Hanover (7-10-1) at the Ice Den in Hooksett at 3 p.m.

In Division II, No. 8 Oyster River of Durham (8-9-1) will host No. 9 Lebanon (7-10-1) at 8 p.m. at the Whittemore Center at the University of New Hampshire and No. 7 Merrimack hosts No. 10 Kingswood of Wolfeboro at 6 p.m.

Manchester Memorial is the defending state champion and defeated North 3-2 and 3-1 in the regular season, but head coach Mark Putney knows that means nothing now.

“We played them twice and won both, but they were very close games. I think the first one we won with less than a minute to go,” Putney said. “We didn’t talk about it (how hard it is to beat a team three times), but as a coach I recognized that. We’re evenly matched and if we stick to the basics, starting in the defensive zone and play smart, we should be OK.”

Putney knew at the start of the season that repeating was going to be tough for his team, which lost a large number of players to graduation and prep schools.

“We set some early season goals to make the playoffs. I think they wanted to finish in a better place, but they also realize that it’s a whole new season Wednesday,” Putney said of his team. “They feel good and they know they’ve been playing well. We’ve had some difficulty getting the puck in the net, but that can change game to game. They’re optimistic.”

Putney sees the entire Division I field as a potential list of champions.

“Top to bottom, anybody is truly capable of winning it. There has been a lot of parity. Teams step up, especially at playoff time,” Putney said. “Every team this year could truly win it and it wouldn’t be figured as an upset. St. Thomas is at the top, but I think somebody can break through their armor if they’re having a good game.”

Division III play begins on Saturday with top-ranked Berlin hosting No. 8 ConVal of Peterborough, No. 4 Portsmouth hosting No. 5 John Stark of Weare, No. 2 Souhegan of Amherst hosting No. 7 Laconia-Winnisquam aand No. 3 Belmont-Gilford hosting No. 6 Kennett of Conway/

Girls’ play opens Saturday as well with No. 4 Oyster River hosting No. 5 Bishop Guertin of Nashua at UNH and No. 3 Lebanon hosting No. 6 Bishop Brady-Trinity at 5:10 p.m. Top-ranked Hanover and No. 2 Lebanon will await the preliminary round winners.

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