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Speed atop the Suffolk hockey league with St. John the Baptist, Smithtown-Hauppauge

St. John the Baptist's ice hockey team, front

St. John the Baptist's ice hockey team, front row, from left: Thomas Walters, John Krumholz, Kayla Kyff, Billy Hanly, Chuck Peck. Second row, from left: Chris Bowe, Brett Rooney, Freddy Gumenta, Austin Francios, Phil Zucchi, Matt Araujo, Coach Tom Fuccillo. Back row, seated, from left: Will Girimonte, Matt O'Shaugnessy. (Credit: Handout)

When St. John the Baptist and Smithtown-Hauppauge take the ice, the game plan is to play fast. There’s no in-between.

And it’s worked.

The Cougars are in first place at 14-2-1-1 with 30 points and Smithtown-Hauppauge is right behind them in second place (14-3-0-1) with 29 points in the Suffolk County High School Hockey League.

“Smithtown is going to give us our biggest challenge going forward,” St. John the Baptist coach Thomas Fuccillo said. “It’s a really fast-paced, very exciting game when we play each other. It could be a championship matchup.”

Fucillo said his Cougars' 4-3 overtime win over Smithtown-Hauppauge was the "game of the year" on Nov. 25 at The Rinx in Hauppauge.

It was the second win in as many games for St. John the Baptist over Smithtown-Hauppauge.

"This year has been different," Fuccillo said. "We have a ton of skill and you see a lot of puck movement. We play a speed game. We don't stick to systems or traps."

In his third season at the helm, Fuccillo is getting big-time production from his top line, which includes center Matt O'Shaughnessy, left wing Chuck Peck and right wing Matt Araujo.

While those guys are putting the puck in the net, the key to success for the Cougars is having defenseman Brett Rooney on board. Rooney hasn't played since the Cougars' 9-3 win over East Islip on Dec. 8 after suffering a knee injury.

"We've never lost a game with him in the lineup this season," Fuccillo said of Rooney, St. John the Baptist's captain. "He's not the type to throw big hits. He'll just do what he needs to do to get possession of the puck. He's just phenomenal."

Smithtown-Hauppauge eighth-year coach Vincent Granice thinks just as highly about a few of his key players, especially his top line, featuring left wing Nick Lupo.

Lupo leads the way, alongside right wing Devin Jenny and center Anthony Zyller, while goalkeeper Thomas DeRosa helps solidify the defense.

"What's great about this team is that we're getting balanced scoring," Granice said. "That was our biggest problem last season. We're getting a lot of production and that's because these guys have a lot of speed."

There's that word again. Speed.

"When they are on the ice and they want to play, their speed and puck handling is tops in the league," Granice said of Lupo, Jenny and Zyller. "We do look for them a lot. Our philosophy is to attack with four, meaning we like to have one defenseman help out in the offensive zone."

Granice looks for defensemen Zach McDonough and Christian Stagna to know when and where to pinch into the offensive zone and help out.

St. John the Baptist will finish up the regular season against Middle Country at 9 p.m. on Jan. 20 and take on Sachem at 9 p.m. on Jan. 29.

Smithtown-Hauppauge faces the defending champs, Connetquot-Sayville, which defeated the Bulls last season in the final, at 9:20 p.m. on Jan. 22. The Bulls' final game is against Ward Melville on Senior Night at 4:50 p.m. on Jan. 26.

Along with St. John the Baptist and Smithtown-Hauppauge, East Islip, Half Hollow Hills, Connetquot-Sayville and Ward Melville have all clinched playoff spots. The postseason begins on Feb. 6 at The Rinx in Hauppauge.