The quest to advance to the TD Garden from the MIAA Division 1 North and Division 1 South brackets begins on Thursday evening. Burlington and Xaverian, losers of the Super 8 play-in games, are the top seeds in the north and south brackets, respectively.
Both the Red Devils and Hawks have to be considered among the favorites to advance out of their brackets, but there are certainly other worthy contenders.
The seedings are done completely based on winning percentages so each bracket has a team in the lower seeds that is among the top contenders based on a lesser record against better competition. Hingham, controversially left out of the Super 8, is the No. 10 seed in the South and will be a very difficult out.
Arlington Catholic, the second place team from the Catholic Central Conference, is the No. 8 seed in the North. Dan Shine's team has two very good lines that skate well and the Cougars stuck with some very good teams, including BC High and Austin Prep, during the regular season.
MIAA Division 1 North
1. Burlington (16-2-4)
2. Newburyport (15-4-2)
3. Arlington (14-3-4)
4. Andover (10-4-6)
5. Matignon (12-6-2)
6. St. Mary's of Lynn (12-6-3)
7. Melrose (12-6-3)
8. Arlington Catholic (12-7-2)
9. Billerica (10-8-4)
10. Chelmsford (10-9-1)
11. Winchester (8-8-4)
12. Medford (6-12-2)
Bob Conceison's Red Devils have to be the favorite after falling, 3-0, to Woburn on Tuesday night in the second Super 8 play-in game. Burlington has some forwards who can really skate led by junior Anthony Nikolopoulos. Juniors Josh Boulos and Shane O'Halloran can start the breakout and add some offensive punch from the blue line.
It's a shame that Arlington Catholic, as the No. 8 seed, will have to face Burlington in the quarterfinals if the Cougars advance out of the first round. Dan Shine's team has two very good lines led by Ryan Smith, Bernie McGovern, Andy Somerville and Ryan Tierney. The Cougars have gotten better goaltending as the season has progressed and have kept it close with many of the upper echelon teams in the state.
The Dark Horses:
Vin Mirasolo's teams always play well in the tournament dating back to his days at Lynnfield. The Red Raiders have ridden their first line to success this season. If Brian McLaughlin, Zach Mercer and Jack Hickey are on, Melrose could go far. Senior defenseman Jake Karelas logs a ton of minutes for the Red Raiders and has provided an offensive spark from the blue line. Senior goaltender Tyler Brown covers a lot of net and will have to come up big for Melrose to advance past the first round.
St. Mary's of Lynn always plays a tough, gritty and aggressive style implemented by longtime coach Mark Lee. The Spartans have two good young forwards in Dante Maribito and Eric Pedro. Senior forward Shawn MacBurnie has provided secondary scoring from the second line after Lee moved him off the first line to give the team more of a balanced attack.
Winchester, the Spartans' opponent in the first round, is another potential sleeper. Matt Spang's team didn't have the regular season that the school has become accustomed to, but don't count out one of the perennial contenders from the Middlesex League.
Don't sleep on Arlington or Newburyport who both more than held their own against quality opponents this season.
Arlington Catholic and Andover will advance to the north semis out of the left side of the bracket while Melrose and St. Mary's will move on from the right side of the bracket. Arlington Catholic will beat Melrose for the north sectional championship and move on to the TD Garden.
MIAA Division 1 South
1. Xaverian (14-6-1)
2. Wellesley (14-2-4)
3. Barnstable (13-5-1)
4. Newton North (13-5-3)
5. Duxbury (12-5-5)
6. Milton (13-6-3)
7. Weymouth (10-4-6)
8. Braintree (9-5-6)
9. Framingham (9-6-5)
10. Hingham (11-8-3)
11. Marshfield (9-9-4)
12. Mansfield (10-10-0)
13. Natick (8-8-4)
14. Falmouth (9-9-4)
15. Bridgewater-Raynham (7-9-4)
16. Brockton (5-11-4)
The Hawks of Xaverian are obviously the favorite in the South Sectional after losing to Franklin in the first Super 8 play-in game. Dave Spinale's team is a little banged up, however, missing star defenseman Ryan Walsh who is out with an ankle injury.
The Hawks have the best goaltender in the Division 1 Tournament with '98 sophomore Aidan Murphy. Xaverian can roll three lines that can all skate well and should advance despite the likely absence of Walsh. Look for the top line of Tim Sweeney, Jon Beniers and Jake Farrell to take over games.
Hingham is the other favorite in the South with the star-studded young top line of Matt Demelis, Matt Egan and Billy McNally. Tony Messina's team could very well be in the Super 8 if it wasn't for the misguided decision of the Super 8 Selection Committee. That being said, Hingham has fought consistency all season long, but if the Harbormen play as well as they did down the stretch, look out.
Duxbury, a perennial power in the south, was in the Super 8 last season and has a star senior goaltender in Tucker Kelly, the team's captain and unquestioned leader.
Watch out for Dave Fasano's team, the defending Division 1 state runner-up. The Wamps don't have any real stars, but they skate well and move the puck quickly on the power play. Having seen Braintree near the end of the regular season against St. John's Prep, it's clear the Wamps are better than their record. A few coaches around the state concurred.
Barnstable and Mitlon are two other teams who knocked off some quality teams and were in consideration for a Super 8 bid towards the final weeks of the season. Wellesley was knocked for its easy schedule, but had a good record and senior captain Jack Maxwell received praise from those who saw him between the pipes.
Xaverian, Hingham and Duxbury seem like logical and clear choices to make the south semis, but that final spot is tougher to determine. Milton beat Barnstable in the final week of the regular season so the prediction here is the Red Raiders getting revenge in the playoffs. Hingham and Xaverian advance to the championship where the Harbormen, spurred by their Super 8 snub, advance to the TD Garden.
MIAA DIVISION 1 STATE CHAMPION:
It wouldn't surprise this observer to see Burlington, Arlington Catholic, Xaverian or Hingham be the team to lift the trophy above their heads on the TD Garden ice come March 15, but the Harbormen should pull it off.
Jeff Cox covers college, junior, high school and prep hockey, NCAA recruiting and NHL Draft prospects. Follow him on Twitter @JeffCoxSports.