Column: Time For These Boys Hockey Seniors To Decide How They Want To Be Remembered

David Creed •

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The regular season has ended and the time is now for the Whaler boys hockey seniors to decide how they want this team to be remembered. Photo by Chris Tran

Through the first 16 games of their regular season, everyone was singing the Whaler boys hockey team’s praises, and rightfully so. They owned a 15-1 record with their one blemish being a 3-2 loss to the defending Div. 4 state champion Norwell Clippers on opening night Dec. 10. The Whalers making a deep run in the state tournament appeared to be all but certain.

But after an underwhelming 0-3-1 stretch to end their regular season where they were outscored 14-4, the Whalers making a run of that caliber has become as much of an uncertainty as the fast ferry running in the heart of the offseason: you know there is a good chance, but you still have your doubts.

The Whalers were beaten by the Sandwich Blue Knights 5-1 Thursday afternoon – cementing their regular season record at 15-4-1. Their only goal came off the stick of sophomore forward Canton Jenkinson off an assist from his twin brother Jeremy.

Aside from Jenkinson’s goal, not much went right for Nantucket and to make matters worse, a myriad of penalties stripped away any sliver of hope they had to make a comeback or build some momentum in the game’s waning minutes to carry into their first game of the state tournament next week.

“I just wish it was a more hospitable game for both of us to play," Whaler head coach Jack Moran said after the game. "It would have been great if we had two good teams playing a good, solid game.”

Make no mistake about it. The talent is on this team to make a deep run. All of the ingredients needed to win a championship are in that locker room. They’ve also shown the moxie, character, and willpower to make a deep tournament run after last season’s journey to the state semifinal – the first in program history.

The biggest threat to knock Nantucket out of the state tournament over the next three weeks isn’t going to be Sandwich, or Norwell, or Winthrop, or Hanover, or Dover-Sherborn.

The biggest threat to end Nantucket’s season is themselves, and the sooner this group learns that and begins focusing on their own game rather than the elements of the game that are out of their control such as the officiating, opposing team’s play and behavior, etc., the better off they will be.

But the clock is ticking.

Over the course of their 15-game win streak, the Whalers earned several signature wins including victories over Nauset (6-4 win at home), Framingham (3-1 win at home), Martha’s Vineyard twice (4-1 and 5-3 wins), Barnstable (5-4 win on the road), and Old Rochester Regional High School twice (8-2 and 4-1 wins).

They outscored their opponents 76-23 during that stretch. They scored four or more goals in 13 of those 15 games and allowed two or fewer goals in 11 of those 15.

It was a total team effort. They scored goals in bunches, played tight defense, moved the puck fluidly, had clean zone entries, played physical, clean hockey, and got timely goaltending from senior captain Griffin Starr. They were a juggernaut bulldozing through their competition.

But the wheels have begun to come off ever since losing to Nauset 6-2 on February 15th after allowing five unanswered goals in the third period.

Over the course of the past week, the Whalers have had some games where they generated consistent offensive pressure – such as the North Reading game that ended in a 1-1 tie. They deserved a better fate in that one. But in others – such as Thursday – they didn’t register many high-quality chances.

While they've still shown a knack for generating plenty of offensive zone time, their ability to finish chances has disappeared completely and needs to come back quickly. As a whole their defense has been far too loose, their zone entries have been sloppy, the timely goaltending has not been there, they’ve left Starr out to dry on too many occasions, and they have been putting themselves into some untimely shorthanded situations thanks to a lack of discipline rooted by selfish desires to score some immediate revenge against an opposing player.

All year, Nantucket has been an outstanding third period team. They train extremely hard and are well conditioned thanks to their dry land training regimen. Their work ethic and drive to be more conditioned than the opponent has been praised by Moran since he returned as head coach last winter.

On Thursday, the Whalers went into the third period down 4-1. Moran told me after the game that despite the score, he felt in his opinion that his team played a solid game through two periods. The odds to come back and win are never great down three goals, but normally the Whalers find a way to take their game to another level in the final stanza.

But instead of orchestrating one of their signature third period performances, they went on to accumulate more penalties (7) than shots on net (4) in the final 15 minutes. One penalty was a five-minute major after a Nantucket player whacked a Sandwich player in the head with a stick while the Blue Knight player was down on the ice.

Nantucket wasn’t the only team guilty of extracurricular shenanigans. The Sandwich players were no angels either – with the two squads combining for 11 penalties in the third. Tempers boiled over on both sides.

As the final buzzer sounded, a Sandwich player went after a Whaler player at center ice to seemingly attempt to start a scrum. Things escalated to the point where the referees determined that the heated rivals would not line up and shake hands after the game.

On Saturday, February 24th at 10 a.m., the Whalers will learn their official seeding in the MIAA’s Div. 4 state tournament. While they are most likely going to lock up the #2 seed, a small fall in the bracket could happen depending on how the teams around them ended their seasons. Sandwich leapfrogging them is not out of the realm of possibility, but it is very unlikely according to an individual familiar with the MIAA's ranking formula.

The good news for the Whalers is that when they take the ice for their next game, their record will be 0-0. Nothing to this point will matter or impact what happens moving forward as the state tournament progresses. That is the beauty of the postseason; you get a clean slate.

The bad news is that the Whaler hockey team that won 15 straight games at one point this season is nowhere to be found at the moment and if they don’t come back quickly, their time in the state tournament will be short-lived.

Moran remains optimistic and confident the team will return to form. He felt like his team had a good dry land session on Wednesday. He also believes his team got the short end of the stick when it came to officiating and penalties on Thursday – pointing to the fact that his team had just one power play all game since the Blue Knight’s penalties were largely matching minors.

He told me he believed his team didn’t have much of a chance to play their game given how the calls were divvied out and was still satisfied with the first two periods of hockey. He said it got to the point where his players couldn't do anything because they were getting ready to “get railroaded from behind.”

"It definitely wasn't terrible,” Moran said of his team’s performance. “It's definitely better than we have played over the last few games. It's not that we were definitely unhappy with it by any means. It may have appeared to some people that we could have played better, but I know the kids gave it everything they could considering the circumstances we were under. They're only going to start focusing and sharpening their skills more as we go on and get ready to start taking on the playoff picture here.

“We have home games too (to begin tournament play),” Moran continued. “We've had an away streak going here for a while and it hasn't been the most pleasant one. It seems like we've had every bit of bad luck we could possibly have from getting to arenas, running into (car) accidents, transportation issues, warm up issues. Everything that could possibly have happened that could go wrong went wrong. So, we just need to get back into the groove. That's all. So be that as it may, I just hate that place (the Gallo Arena).”

The confidence Moran and his staff have in this group has not wavered at all. They continue to believe in their players and their potential to accomplish something special between now and March 17th.

But the time is now for the Whaler’s senior leaders of Starr, Ryan Davis, Michael Culkins, Colby O’Keefe, Braden Knapp, and Hunter Strojny to decide how they’d like this team to be remembered.

For Griffin Starr (captain), Ryan Davis (assistant captain), and Michael Culkins (assistant captain) in particular, it is time for them to show their teammates, their opponents, and the island why they have those letters on their chests.

This Whaler team needs a spark more than ever and starting now they can’t afford any mulligans, or moral victories, or to take undisciplined and selfish penalties in the heat of the moment. It is win or go home from here on out.

This senior group has had a nice run. They’ve enjoyed lots of success and played a significant part in helping this team make back-to-back state quarterfinals and one semifinal.

But after years of just being a nice story, everyone is taking Nantucket seriously. This group has put Nantucket on the map and as a result, the Whalers aren’t sneaking up on anyone anymore. They’ll likely be the #2 seed in this year’s tournament and be set up for a feasible path to make it further than last year: the state title game at TD Garden.

The next time these players lace up their skates, it will be playoff time. Talent for talent, the Whalers are as skilled as any team they'll face. As a result, their opponents will likely try to goad them into taking bad, undisciplined penalties to put Nantucket into shorthanded situations. Their opponents know that is the only way to level the playing field. They know it is the only way anyone can beat this team and knock them out of the tournament when they're firing on all cylinders.

It is time for these players to decide whether they want to look back at this nice story five years from now and reminisce about a happy ending, or look back at this season with regret and say “what if?”

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