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January 28. 2014 9:18PM

Top battles

NHIAA Division I hockey's top clubs to battle

Salem's Sam MacDonald, tries to bat a puck away, against Trinity on Jan. 8. (Thomas Roy/Union Leader)

Three hockey games involving the top six teams might shed some light on who the frontrunner is in Division I.

Then again, they may not.

"Any one of the top six teams right now can win (the division title)," said Salem coach Mark McGinn.

"It's still early to say who the team to beat is," added Londonderry coach Peter Bedford. "To me, it comes down to the team that remains consistent down the stretch. When you get to the postseason, matchups also come into play."

Wednesday, in a 4:30 p.m. matchup of 6-3 teams at JFK Coliseum, Manchester Central and city rival Trinity will battle for sole possession of fourth place. Also today in a 4:40 p.m. start at the Salem Icenter, the two hottest teams collide when second-ranked St. Thomas Aquinas of Dover (8-1-1) challenges third-ranked Londonderry (8-2-0). St. Thomas is unbeaten since its opening-day loss to Trinity; Londonderry will enter the game with a seven-game winning streak.

On Thursday at 4:30 p.m. at JFK, sixth-ranked Manchester Memorial (5-2-1) will host top-ranked Salem (9-1-0).

"We're up against a team that beat us twice last year," said McGinn of Memorial. "The other thing is, we're used to skating on a bigger ice sheet. The smaller ice surface at the JFK always comes into play, and I'm expecting a low-scoring game."

Memorial (16 goals against) and Salem (17) have allowed the fewest goals in the division. The Blue Devils have allowed just five goals over their last four games.

"We've got Memorial, Londonderry, Nashua North, Central and Trinity coming up, so after this wave we'll see where we stand," said McGinn. "Defense was our strong point starting the season and (goalie) Sam McDonald has fit into our system nicely. While it's nice we're scoring many goals of late, we emphasize defense. We usually don't give up more than one or two goals."

Salem has a balanced offense led by Paul Antkowiak (2 goals, 10 assists, 12 points), Alex Ring (2-10-12), Kyle Nagri (9-2-11) and Cody Soucy (5-5-10). Bryce Jacob (4-6-10) and Nick Burgess (4-4-8) have led Memorial's offense this season.
McGinn said the defending state champs are playing well.
"They work hard, move the puck and finish their checks," he said. "They still have experienced players on their roster and know how to win."

Of his team's seven-game winning streak, Londonderry coach Bedford said, "I don't think we've played our best hockey yet. To be a good team, you have to have win streaks. My main goal right now is to see our team play consistently well from now through the end of the regular season heading into the playoffs."

Erik Coburn (5-23-28), Curtis Harper (13-9-22), Cooper Roy (4-6-10) and Mike Donlan (10-2-12) have guided the Lancers to the top in scoring offense, with 47 goals. St. Thomas (43 goals) is second, led by stalwarts Glenn Wiswell (11-11-22), Niall Foster (7-14-21) and Ty Turgeon (10-7-17).

"I don't know what type of game to expect," said Bedford. "I know each team will take it up a notch. I certainly don't want us to get into a track meet with them. Defense will win this game."

Salem's only loss was at the hands of St. Thomas,  while the Saints' only defeat came against Trinty, which got throttled by Londonderry, 7-12, on Sunday at St. Anselm College's Sullivan Arena. Londonderry lost to Salem and North, and Central beat North.

"You don't know who's coming to the rink on any given day," said Central coach Brian Stone. "I guess that's what makes this season fun to follow because any team can win on any night."

Trouble is Central hasn't beaten Trinity in four seasons. "My seniors told me that after practice," said Stone. "I know they beat us three times last year and once this season."

Trinity coach Mike Connell, playing it smart, said he had no recollection of his team's recent success against Central. "I can't remember things that happened recently. All I know is Brian is doing a super job at Central and we're expecting a tough game."

Stone saw Londonderry hold Trinity to one second-period goal Sunday and expects the Pioneers to bounce back.

"We've got to contain their first line," said Stone of Mitch Myers (14-5-19), Jack Collins (6-4-10) and Drew Merrick (2-9-11). Central will counter with Jonathan Mathieu (2-8-10), Devon Sprague (7-2-9) and Colin Pacheco (3-6-9).

Both coaches expect a low-scoring game against two of the top goalies in the division, Ian Beliveau of Central and Curtis Wirbal of Trinity. "When Beliveau is hot, it's like facing a brick wall," said Connell. "We're going to try and block his line of sight in front."

As for his thoughts on the top six teams, Connell warned "don't forget the bottom half of the division. Playing teams like Bishop Guertin, Concord, Hanover, North, Exeter in a first-round playoff game is no bargain for any team. Not in a single-elimination tournament."

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