Their goal is the Super 8 tournament.
But with the departure of 16 players from last year’s 13-win squad, the road to the state’s elite hockey tourney will be a bit more challenging at Westford Academy.
The return of first-liners Jay Drapeau and Cam MacDonald , however, might may not make the road as rocky as it appears on paper.
Sure, there is the business of the ever-heady Merrimack Valley/Dual County League schedule, in which the Grey Ghosts will square off with both Central Catholic and Chelmsford twice. But that will only make the newcomers adapt more quickly while the top linemates bear the offensive load.
“We’ve always played a difficult schedule,” said Westford coach Bob Carpenter . “We’re at a spot right now where they know what’s expected of them. We look forward to that challenge.”
As sophomores, Drapeau (16 goals) and MacDonald (25 goals) accounted for 41 of Westford’s 80 goals, and the expectation is that those numbers will increase this season.
“Cam and Jay have this sense of where the other one is on the ice at all times,” said Carpenter. “They are both unselfish players and enjoy setting the other guy up more than scoring the goals themselves.”
As freshmen, they skated together on the second line for a Grey Ghosts team that was wildly inconsistent, finishing 3-11-3.
A bump up to the top line, joining Ian Speliotis , helped spark Westford (13-5-4) to its first state tournament berth in three years. The Grey Ghosts were ousted in a heart-wrenching 3-2 overtime loss to Wakefield.
With the 5-foot-9, 160-pound Drapeau back at center and the 5-9, 165-pound MacDonald skating the left wing, 6-foot, 180-pound senior captain Ryan Bunyon steps in on the right side to replace Speliotis, who transferred to the Brooks School in North Andover. Bunyon contributed six goals and seven assists last year.
“Ryan is a very good player,” said MacDonald of his new linemate. “He is solid passing the puck and is a great playmaker. We are jelling very nicely.”
Also returning to the fold is Bunyon’s older brother, Jack , who will provide senior leadership as a captain and center on the second line, and Ryan Hesseltine , who will shore up the power-play unit.
“We all have similar styles of play and I think it will be a strong point of our attack,” said Drapeau, speaking about the power play. “We are all very unselfish players.”
That unselfish play is evident in the numbers: MacDonald doled out 26 assists last season while Drapeau dished out 27 helpers. Both players attribute that to their friendship.
“We’re friends on and off the ice,” said MacDonald. “On the ice we know where the other person is at all times and neither of us care who is actually scoring the goals, as long as the team wins.”
With a host of inexperienced players at the varsity level this year, the Grey Ghosts will be looking to revamp their blue line while trying to pluck a new goalie from three candidates.
“Me and Jay, and all the other returning players have to do a good job of keeping people in line,” said MacDonald. “I think we can do that.”
Until the new players get up to speed, the team will rely heavily on MacDonald and Drapeau, but Carpenter stopped short of heaping all the responsibility on their shoulders.
“They’ll definitely be a key for our success,” said the coach. “It’s our first line, so you obviously expect some production, but I want to hesitate to put all this pressure on them.”
But if the Super 8 is where they long to be, then MacDonald and Drapeau are more than willing to carry the load and take on that pressure.
“We really want to reach the Super 8,” said Drapeau. “That is our main goal this year.”
Several teams have strong pairs leading the way
In addition to the Drapeau/MacDonald combo, there are a number of tandems on the ice north of Boston. Here’s a look at four more:
Casey Fitzgerald and Ara Nazarian , Malden Catholic: Only sophomores, these two will need to step forward for the two-time defending Super 8 champion Lancers. Nazarian (Boxford) came into his own during last season’s playoff run, showing strength, agility, and a scorer’s touch down the left wing. Fitzgerald, who has already committed to Boston College, has a vast array of skills on the blue line.
Tommy Bishop and Drew Dawson , Chelmsford: Paired up on the first line as juniors, and having played together since age 10, the two accounted for 43 goals last season. The Merrimack Valley Conference/Dual County League Division 1 MVP last season, Bishop has registered 46 career assists.
C.J. Grinnell and Derek DeCastro , Burlington: If the Red Devils want to defend, or improve upon, their Division 1 crown from last year, they will look toward this senior pairing at both ends of the ice. Grinnell had a 21-point campaign last year and is highly capable of sniping his spots. DeCastro stopped 25 shots in last year’s title game against Milton and posted a 1.94 goals-against average.
Brian Pinho and Tyler Bird , St. John’s Prep: When one big scorer leaves (Sam Kurker) the Prep, there is always another waiting in the wings. This year, however, the Eagles will benefit from two players stepping into that role as Providence-bound Pinho (North Andover) and Bird (Andover) will provide explosive offense on the top line.
Craig Forde can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.