Coming off a tough 6-5 loss to Mount St. Charles on Friday, and needing a win in its regular season finale against La Salle on Saturday to clinch first place, the Hendricken hockey team rose to the occasion.
The Hawks knocked off La Salle 4-1, securing a finish at the top of Division I-Cimini and the No. 1 seed in the state playoffs, which are set to kick off this weekend.
Hendricken’s opponent in its best-of-three semifinal series will be No. 4 seeded Burrillville, which went 13-5 during the season and came in first place in D-I-Eccleston.
The other semifinal will feature No. 2 Mount, the four-time defending state champions, against No. 3 La Salle.
And after a 14-3-1 regular season in which the Hawks were in first place from start to finish, there’s a certain sense of accomplishment in ending the year on top of the standings.
“First and foremost, we started the year and one of our goals was to finish in first place,” Hendricken head coach Jim Creamer said. “We appreciate it more because it took us the entire year to get it. To finally get it on the last day was pretty satisfying.”
But now, the focus has turned fully to Burrillville. Hendricken played the Broncos once during the regular season, on Feb. 3, and the Hawks came away with a 4-1 win.
However, Burrillville hasn’t lost since that game, winning its final five to close out the season.
While the perception of the Broncos in some circles may be that because they are a public school – while Hendricken, Mount and La Salle are private – they can’t compete, Creamer knows that’s far from the truth.
“I know people look at Burrillville as just a public school team, but they’ve got one of the best goaltenders in the league,” Creamer said. “Offensively they’ve got a line that’s really solid.”
That goaltender is Jacob Toback, who boasts the second-best save percentage in all of Division I at .923, to go along with a 2.24 goals against average.
Offensively, the Broncos are led by senior Andrew Etheridge, whose 18 goals are tied for the most in D-I, while his 30 points are good for fifth.
And ever since Hendricken finished up play over the weekend and found out that it would be playing Burrillville in the semis, Creamer has been stressing to his team just how good the Broncos are and the dangers of looking ahead to a potential finals showdown with either La Salle or Mount.
“That’s first and foremost,” Creamer said. “We’ve mentioned that 100 times already. We can’t look beyond them.”
Still, the Hawks like their chances.
In net, Hendricken has relied on junior Billy Palmer to carry the load, and he’s responded with a number of standout performances. His .912 save percentage is fourth best in D-I, and his goals against average is a slim 2.60.
They’ll also be playing with a healthy Justin Finan, a senior forward who has missed significant time during the season but has returned to the lineup.
That should provide a lift, but the Hawks have plenty of other firepower as well.
Freshman Matt Creamer finished third in the league with 32 points, while senior Robbie Buehrer is tied for fifth with Etheridge with 30 points.
Against a Burrillville team that was fourth in the league with 73 goals – and fourth in goals allowed with 41 – Hendricken will need those weapons to produce.
“We’re going to have to get a lot of shots on net and work to score goals,” Jim Creamer said.
And the Hawks will also have to play smart against an opportunistic Broncos team if they want to return to the state finals for a second consecutive season.
Hendricken lost to Mount two games to none in last year’s championship series.
“I think they’re going to wait for us to make some mistakes,” Creamer said. “If we can just limit our mistakes, I think that’s a key.”
The series will open up on Friday night at Thayer Arena, with the puck dropping at 7 p.m. The next night, Hendricken will go on the road for a 7 p.m. game at Burrillville’s Levy Arena.
If a third game is necessary, it will be played on Monday at Thayer.
Hendricken is seeking its first state championship since the 2006-07 season.
“We’ve had some periods that we’d like to take back this season, but in general we’ve been fairly consistent throughout the year,” Creamer said. “We’ve gotten better from the start of the year.”