The Super 8 play-in games were two of the best games of the 2014 tournament and this year promises to be no different. No. 7 Franklin will square off with No. 10 Xaverian in the first game Tuesday night at 5:10 at the Chelmsford Forum.
The game pits one of the old guard against one of the new kids on the block. Xaverian, a long time member of the state's elite Catholic Conference takes on Franklin, a newcomer to Division 1 playing in the Hockomock League.
The Panthers and Hawks last met on Feb. 23, 2012 in the South of Boston Shootout. Franklin won that contest, 3-2, to capture the tournament title and finish the regular season on a high note. Back then the Panthers were in Division 2 and Chris Spillane's program was in the middle of a three-year run in which it finished runner-up in the state championship game each season.
The Panthers (16-2-3)
Spillane's team ran through the regular season with relative ease, only losing to Malden Catholic and Rhode Island high school powerhouse Bishop Hendricken. Perhaps the most notable result of the team's season was a 3-3 tie against Springfield Cathedral in the opening night of the season.
There has some question regarding the strength of schedule and lack of competition faced by Franklin in the Hockomock League, but it's hard to knock a team for taking care of business and not looking out of place when it has faced the upper echelon.
In just the program's second year in Division 1, it will be the team's first appearance in the Super 8.
"We're just going to take it for what it's worth. We're really looking forward to the opportunity. It's an honor to be included in the Super 8," said Franklin coach Chris Spillane.
Franklin's high powered offense averaged five goals per game over the course of the season. The Panthers have a balanced attack with three solid lines, but the majority of the scoring punch was provided by senior Ryan Spillane. Fellow seniors Joe Borque and Alec Borkowski are two other names to look for to have an impact on the score sheet tonight.
"We roll three lines, but we've had one line step up each night. On any given night one of them has come through," Spillane said. "It's a balanced attack that really benefits us."
Franklin's senior laden defense allowed just 29 goals on the season. Senior goaltender Ryan Shea has been instrumental to the team's success.
"He's been the backbone to our success. We had the same two goalies the last two years, but they graduated. He sat on the bench and watched the last three years. He has really been lights out this year," explained Spillane.
Franklin will be supported by a large and boisterous contingent of fans and a veteran team should minimize some of the nerves of playing in the program's first ever Super 8.
The Hawks (14-5-1)
Xaverian comes into Tuesday's game a little banged up, but it will have the added benefit of having experience in this game from last season. Coach Dave Spinale's team downed Archbishop Williams at Stoneham Arena last season to advance to a first round series against BC High. The Hawks ultimately fell to Catholic Conference rival BC High in the series, but that experience should pay off.
The Hawks will be without stalwart Ryan Walsh on the blue line. The senior has a sprained ankle and the team is hoping to get him back later in the tournament if it advances past Franklin.
"He's been critical to our success, but we're going to have to do what we can to get by without him," said Spinale.
Playing without Walsh, one of the best blue liners in the state, will not be easy, but having an elite goaltender as the last line of defense won't hurt. Sophomore Aidan Murphy got peppered in this tournament a season ago and he stood up to the task in his first season of high school hockey. Murphy has good size, covers the net well and does a nice job squaring up to shooters. He's got a quick glove that he flashed more than a few times this season.
"He's real steady. We rely on him heavily," said Spinale of his '98 goaltender who has helped backbone a defense that has given up just 43 games all season. Taking away the 12 goals Xaverian allowed in two losses to Malden Catholic, the Hawks have allowed less than two goals per game this season.
Antonio Marini, now a freshman on the hockey team at Saint Anselm, is gone from last year's vaunted first line, but Tim Sweeney and Jon Beniers are back. They've been joined by Jake Farrell. Although Sweeney has played a little nicked up at times this season, he's the type of player that can maintain possession and cycle the puck well.
"He's a true power forward. He generates open space and offensive chances. He's been a little snake bit, but he'll bring it [Tuesday] night. We'll really count on him, Jon and Jake," said Spinale.
Xaverian knows not to underestimate Franklin, a team that will be excited and eager to prove the team's worth at this level.
"Franklin plays hard. They're a very formidable opponent," said Spinale, who said he watched tape of Franklin's game against Malden Catholic. "They have a massive following and I'm sure they'll be there."
Jeff Cox covers college, junior, high school and prep hockey, NCAA recruiting and NHL Draft prospects. Follow him on Twitter @JeffCoxSports.