It was a tale of two hockey games at the Salem Icenter in New Hampshire Friday night.
The first match, featuring top-seeded Milton Academy going up against Lawrence Academy (the school that produced Steve Heinze for the B's fans reading)was a ragged, sloppy affair.
Milton fell behind early when East All-Star prep goalie Sean Doughtery failed to make a pretty routine glove save on a stoppable shot to give fourth-seeded (in the Elite 8) LA an early and short-lived lead. The diminutive (he's listed at 5-10, but we got a good look at him out of his pads and he's 5-5 or 5-6 tops) goalie settled in and played much better after giving up the first score.
Milton captain and senior defenseman Pat McNally had quite a game in both a good and not-so-good sense. On the plus side, he tallied a hat trick in the 5-2 victory. He's one of the most aggressive, attacking defenders we've seen in some time. But, he's also undisciplined and gets himself in trouble by being frequently out of position. There's no denying his skating ability and predatory style, though. When he sees openings, he doesn't hesitate and good things happen at the other end of the ice.
McNally evened the score at 1-1 on such a rush, blazing up the ice from his own end, weaving through the defense and firing home a bullet five-hole shot that beat LA goalie Jordan Nathan. McNally could have had four or five goals the way things were going. His third tally on the night was another beauty, as he hurdled the stick of a defender to get to the net after avoiding a collision of two LA players to gain initial separation.He then put the shot topshelf over backup Nathaniel Heilbron's (who replaced the shaky Nathan)glove.
McNally might be one of those guys who is better served as a forward at the next level because he's such a go-go-go player all the time, but his defense, at least in this game, was suspect. He makes mistakes that his speed and shot can make up for at the lower prep level of competition, but he won't get away with that at the next level. He's got the size to be a defenseman in the pros, but his defensive awareness and gambling style could get him into hot water.
As for Milton defenseman Robby O'Gara, he was solid- the defensive yin to McNally's riverboat gambler yang. He's got nice size with a frame that is going to fill out, and he has a smooth, long stride. His first few steps are only OK, but he's got very good four-way directional mobility and keeps his head up and on a swivel, looking to make the crisp breakouts and advance the puck. He did get caught backing in too much on the first LA goal, but in fairness, it was a shot that his goalie should have had- O'Gara gave him a clear look at it and Doughtery just whiffed. It happens.
As for Matt Herr's Kent Lions, they played from behind for much of their game against Salisbury School, but made it count at the end, capitalizing on a late 5-on-3 and surviving a wild finish.
Defenseman Mike McKee is the legitimate goods. Guys as big as he is (6-5, 230) who skate as well as he does don't grow on trees. From what we're hearing, many in the NHL community have been down on him this season because he doesn't play as aggressively as someone his size should, but McKee was nailing guys all night. In fact, he got called for two brutal penalties that were clean, solid bodychecks in our view. It looked like some of the typical refferee buffoonery that happens when a 17-year-old 230-pound manchild blows up a 17-year-old 140-pound kid. He was activating at the right time all night, making smart decisions with and without the puck, and even after the questionable calls against him, didn't let up in the physical play. Herr had him going to the front of the net and setting up the screen on the power play and at the end it paid dividends.
Kent's real star on the night was Boo Nieves, who took over the game in the third period with a deflection goal that tied the game at 2-2 early, and then 3-3 after Kent fell behind again. His second goal was a thing of beauty: Nieves got the play started when he took the puck at the right circle, head-faked like he was going to cut to the middle, but went around the back of the net for a wraparound. Salisbury goalie Gabe Antoni made the save, but was flopping and flailing around his cage all night, and on this play, it finally cost him. The puck pinballed around in front and went out to the slot where Nieves gathered it up and fired a high backhander that hit nothing but twine. The goal was such a tremendous display of creativity and skill that one scout sitting near me cheered. Displays like that are always praiseworthy, no matter your lot in life.
With the score tied 3-3 late in the period, Kent caught a huge break while on the power play when Nieves was highsticked during a faceoff battle. With that, the Lions had a 5-on-3 and Nieves found senior captain Noel Acciari alone just 15 feet off to Antoni's left. Acciari ripped a low shot that beat the netminder five-hole for the 4-3 lead.
Ryan Rosenthal (he of the tremendous wheels- really good skater)scored an empty-netter to make it 5-3, and even though Salisbury got a late goal from Ondrej Krajnak (8 seconds remaining), it was too little, too late.
Nieves finished the evening with 3 points on two goals and a helper- all in the third. Big game players rise to the occasion when the stakes are highest, and on the night, the '94 BD and 2012-draft eligible did just that.
The NHL attendance was pretty sparse at this one. I did chat with one amateur scouting director, but he was the only scouting boss at the games. There were a few other NHL regional scouts in attendance, so it probably speaks volumes about how the New England prep class is viewed this season. Contrasting what we saw last night from a year ago when Kevin Hayes and Nobles were in the building against Avon, it was no contest.
However, if we were on an NHL team, we would have come away with a very favorable impression of McKee. He did the little things even though he didn't get involved much in the offense. On one play, he gathered the puck in the neutral zone and put on impressive burst of acceleration and lateral agility that made us wonder why more folks aren't higher on this guy. As for the physicality, he played with a mean streak and seemed to demonstrate that when the games mean something, he's ready to battle in the trenches and use his superior size/strength to make a difference.
It will be very interesting to see if McKee makes it to Northeastern, or if the Ottawa 67's entice him to give up his NCAA eligibility for the OHL. Whichever NHL team drafts McKee will have a say in what he does, but going back to prep for one more year at Kent won't be an option. He's not due for Huntingon Ave. until 2012 and the USHL's Lincoln Stars own his rights. So unless he accelerates (and I have to imagine they'll want McKee and massive Jamie Oleksiak together on the blue line there sooner rather than later), he'll either go to the OHL or USHL next season if he's not in the Hockey East.
O'Gara is nowhere near as big nor does he have the sheer, raw upside of McKee, but he's a heady, disciplined player who brings something to the table. In addition to the quickness and mobility, he's got a good stick and made the right decisions throughout the game. O'Gara is one of these guys who, when you replay the game in your mind, can't find a lot to even nitpick in his game. The Long Island native and Yale recruit (for 2012) will join another New York/New Jersey area star in Delbarton School rearguard Matt Killian, who is a similar player in terms of style and substance- size and mobility plus smarts. O'Gara was 95th on Central Scouting's midterm list.