When the Winthrop High hockey team opened its season two months ago with an 0-2-1- record against its first three Northeastern Conference opponents (losses to Peabody and Danvers and a tie with Saugus), the schoolboy hockey pundits wrote off the Vikings as potential challengers for the 2011 NEC title.
But what the prognosticators had not counted upon was a team that never stopped believing in itself and that would come together to fashion as dominant a season as has been seen in the NEC in some time.
Coach Dale Dunbar and his Vikings climaxed their long climb from the bottom of the NEC to the top with a string of three victories this past week that brought them even with first place Beverly; then catapulted them past Beverly; and finally sealed the deal as the 2011 kingpins of the NEC.
Last Wednesdayâ€™s 4-0 shutout of Gloucester at Larsen Rink was an efficient and workmanlike triumph that pulled the Vikings even in the standings with a Beverly squad that itself was being upset by Saugus that same evening.
Nick Clewer gave Winthrop a 1-0 lead in the first period, Ryan McKinnon made it 2-0 in the second, and Jake Rand and Joe Scarfo lit the lamp in the final frame. Steven Waites earned his fifth shutout of the year.
That set the stage for a winner take all contest Saturday evening with Beverly at Salem State. Although Beverly got on the board just one minute into the game to hit Winthrop with an early haymaker, the Vikings regrouped in short order and took charge for the remaining 44 minutes, much to the delight of a nice group of Viking Faithful who made the trek to Salem.
Chris LeBlanc tied the contest less than two minutes later and lit the lamp twice more for a natural hat trick that put Winthrop in control, 3-1. When Nick Clewer (assisted by Joe Scarfo and LeBlanc) potted a goal before the period ended, it was clear that the Vikings were going to take the reins of the NEC reign.
After a scoreless second stanza, McKinnon, assisted by LeBlanc (who thus had a hand in all five Winthrop goals), put the icing on the Viking victory cake for the 5-1 finale.
With Winthrop now ahead of Beverly in the standings, all that was left in the way of an outright NEC title was a makeup game with Revere Sunday evening at Larsen. Although Revere has not been having a great season, the Patriots had a state tourney bid at stake and needed a win or tie against Winthrop to accomplish it. Moreover, Revere always seems to get up for Winthrop and had played the spoiler role against Winthrop for a couple of seasons when the Pats first joined the NEC.
But these 2011 Vikings have shown that they know how to win. Once again Winthrop was on the puck, whether it be in their own end, in the Revere end, or at center ice. Revere never had a prayer against a Winthrop squad that was everywhere they needed to be at all times.
Scarfo, taking a cue from linemate LeBlanc in the Beverly game, rang up his own natural hat trick in the first period against Revere for a 3-0 Winthrop advantage. LeBlanc, Drayton Chasteen, and Tyler Pettee lit the lamp in the middle stanza and Nick Clewer made it 7-0 in the third. Waites saw his bid for a sixth shutout elude him when Revere slid one past him in the final 20 seconds.
So how dominant have the Vikings been on their journey to the NEC title? Well, since their 0-2-1 start in the NEC (0-2-2 overall), they have gone 14-0-2 overall and have finished with a 10-2-3 mark in the NEC. Winthrop has pitched five shutouts in that span and allowed just one goal in eight games. In their last five contests, which included victories over Peabody and Danvers, the Vikings have outscored their foes by an amazing 27-3 margin.
Individually, the Vikings also have recorded a phenomenal standard of achievement. Defenseman Rand was named the co-NEC Player of the Year and was named to the all-conference team, of whom there are only six selected, along with teammates LeBlanc, Scarfo, and Waites. Mike Paulsen and Nick Clewer also joined that foursome on the all-star team.
Waites ended up with a superb 1.31 goals against average, while LeBlanc and Scarfo, thanks to their outbursts in the final few games, shared number one scoring honors in the NEC with 40 points each, with Scarfo netting 26 goals and linemate LeBlanc striking for 20.
Needless to say, it does not get much better than this for Viking hockey fans, for whom the 2010-11 season will rank among the all-time greats in WHS hockey annals. Their heroes now will embark on a quest of another sort, a Journey to the Tourney. Dunbar and his crew were set to close out the regular season last night (Wednesday) in a non league encounter with Melrose. They then will await the announcement of their pairing and seeding in the Division 2 North sectional later this week.