With the Division 2 postseason just over a week away, the Wilmington boys hockey team doesn’t have to worry about gearing up for a new level of play. The Wildcats have already seen the best of the best, especially in the final three games of the regular season.
Head coach Steve Scanlon’s charges tied Wakefield in a critical Middlesex League game on Wednesday. Saturday the team was clipped, 5-4, by Burlington, a team Scanlon considers a front-runner to be selected to the Super 8 portion of the playoffs.
The team’s final regular season contest? All that awaits Wilmington is the annual slugfest against defending champion Tewksbury. The Redmen enter Wednesday’s game with a 9-3-3 record and a bitter taste in their mouth after the Wildcats smacked them, 6-0, to close out last year.
“We took a look at the last three games of the year as tournament games,” said Scanlon. “You’re able to mimick the playoffs as closely as possible without having to risk going home at the end.”
On Saturday, Burlington hopped to a 1-0 edge, but Wilmington struck back with a goal from junior Cam Owens. The Wildcats allowed a goal late in the second period, and early in the first as Burlington began to feed off of a frenzied home crowd.
But the locals bounced right back. Owens scored again in the third period before Joe Russell notched his first every varsity goal to even the score.
Soon after, Burlington took another two-goal lead at 5-3. Wildcat defenseman Brian Pickett scored from the point off a feed from Owens to make it 5-4 with less than one minute left in the game, but the Wildcats couldn’t muster the equalizer.
The game nearly took a bizarre twist, however, in the closing ticks. Burlington’s goalie left the net prematurely to celebrate in front of the student section with a few seconds still on the clock. Pickett launched the puck from about 180 feet away, and if it had been on line, Scanlon said it would have been the miraculous score the team needed.
Instead the Wildcats dropped to 10-4-5 on the year and lost their chance at a league title. But what they’ve gained throughout the year, and especially in their three games to close out the campaign, is the toughness to play with any team.
Last year Wilmington ran through lighter competition in the Cape Ann League and earned the top seed before falling to upstart Saugus. This time around, the team will end up in the middle of the pack without a first round bye, but with the big game experience necessary in the playoffs.
“I always worried about having a high seed,” said Scanlon. “No matter how much you tell the players about how good the teams are you’re facing, you wonder if it’s sinking in. They think they’ll roll people. Then they get a team that jumps on them. One thing our schedule proved this year is we can skate with anybody. But we know that in the tournament you cannot have a bad night, or you’re going home.”