By Kevin J. Stone, Contributing Writer
MARLBOROUGH – The Marlborough High School boys hockey team had one of its best seasons in years in the winter of 2019-2020 when it reached the Division III Central Mass. semifinals before falling to Wachusett in a shootout.
A year later, the Panthers followed up with an 11-1-1 campaign but had no postseason games due to COVID-19. Now, in 2021 and heading into 2022, head coach Mike O’Brien will be relying on a mix of youth and experience as his team hopes to make another tournament run.
Through it all, having a full schedule and no longer having to dress in the parking lots of arenas, as was the case under coronavirus restrictions last year, will be a welcome change.
“Even if you take hockey out of it, it’s good to get anything normal back for the kids,” O’Brien said in a recent phone interview. “They’ve had to put up with a lot over the past 18-20 months, so if we can get some normalcy back for them it’s a big step forward for them.”
“We will be in the locker rooms and that’s a plus not getting dressed in the parking lot,” O’Brien continued. “A big part of hockey or any sport is the camaraderie being built in the locker room becoming friends. When they’re in the locker room they’re all friends and they’re all part of the team so it’s a big component to any sport.”
Juniors Matt LaCroix and Dan Esteves are expected to be the top candidates to compete for the starting goaltending job this year.
“I’ve been very lucky as a coach; we’ve had a pretty good succession of goalies lined up,” O’Brien said. “The only thing that’s going to change this year…I think we have seven goalies signed up right now, but we had two sophomores that skated with us every day last year and they both got into a game last year. They’re coming in as juniors and they’ll be pushing one another.”
“For us as a team and as a coach, that’s great if they’re competing,” he continued. “If one separates, then they’ll play, but if not, either one of those guys in the net is going to give us a good chance to win.”
Sophomore defenders Cam Ellsworth and Luc Masse will be important pieces on the back end, but much will also fall on the shoulders of this year’s four senior captains.
Marcus Chrisafedies, Mark Evangelous, Anthony Giansanti and Colin Tunnera will be the ones driving the proverbial bus. O’Brien believes he’s got the right guys leading the way.
“Marcus last year had a great season,” O’Brien said. “He was the MVP of the team. He scored a lot of big goals for us last year and he’s always done well in that spot.”
“Colin really stepped into being the No. 1 defenseman last year and I’d expect a big year from him just based on what he did last year,” he continued.
“Anthony might not always show up on the scoresheet, but he does a lot of the dirty work,” O’Brien said. “He’s out there killing penalties [and] blocking shots. He preserves the lead late in the game. It’s not always about the goals and the assists, it’s about making the team successful, so he’s a big piece too.”
O’Brien isn’t setting expectations too high just yet simply because this first “real” season in two years remains a bit of an unknown.
The one thing O’Brien does know is that there’s plenty of leadership and talent at key positions on this year’s team to have another strong season.