ANDOVER, Mass. -- Time was growing late for Phillips Exeter. With each passing second, the tension up and down the Big Red bench continued to mount.
Rival Phillips Andover continued to hold its one-goal lead late in the final period of Saturday night's tilt. During the first 14 minutes of the frame, the Big Blue seemed in complete control. They had already tabulated 13 shots on net as Exeter appeared to be spinning its wheels, registering not a single shot. But due to the stellar play of Exeter goaltender Jack Parsons, the Big Blue failed in their attempts in adding to their total.
As a result, this would come back to bite them. At 14:26, Big Red post-grad forward Kevin Neiley, slipping in from the left side, gained control of a rebound off the pads of goalie Erik Wurman and flipped it under the crossbar to tie the game at 3-3.
During the final four minutes of regulation, plus a five-minute overtime stanza, nothing was settled as these two hockey powers finished deadlock inside a jam-packed Ted Harrison Rink.
In the final regular-season tilt for both squads, there was certainly much at stake. Exter (21-4-3), ranked third by New England Hockey Journal, most-likely had already locked up a berth in the upcoming New England Prep School Ice Hockey Association (NEPSIHA) Elite 8 tournament. A win, however, would have certainly given them home ice advantage in Wednesday's opening round. Now the Big Red must sit and wait for Sunday's postseason selections from the NEPSIHA committee to see what happens next.
"We were playing for home ice obviously but Andover was playing in front of their home crowd and were coming off a 7-1 loss to us earlier in the year," said Neiley, who now has 17 goals on the season. "They were also playing for an Elite 8 bid. This was a very intense, physical game throughout which is what we kind of expected. We didn't have many shots in the third period but David White made a shot in front of the net and it went off the goalies pads and fortunately it popped up and I was able to finish off the rebound for the score. Obviously that was big for us."
Likewise, Andover (14-6-4) is also clamoring for an Elite 8 bid. The Big Blue may still have earned that right to be considered due to their strong body of work over season. If they are not chosen to the Elite 8, then they undoubtedly will be awarded a spot in the Large School Division tournament, which also begins on Wednesday.
The championship games for all of the NEPSIHA tournaments will be held March 2 at Ingalls Rink on the campus of Yale University.
Exeter wasted no time jumping on the Blue Blue. Just one minute into the contest, Neiley, a Dartmouth College commit, ripped a shot past Wurman after Andover could not clear the puck out of its own zone. But that early tally proved to be a mirage. For the remainder of the period, the Big Blue continuously camped out inside Big Red zone with surprising ease.
Finally, at 8:42, Andover tied the game up after senior Bryan Ackil pushed in a rebound off a Patrick Daly shot. Three minutes later, the Big Blue jumped ahead with Ackil, once again doing the honors, taking a cross-crease pass from Peter Bensen and tipping it by Parsons.
Just 2:41 into the middle period, PAA would go up by a pair. Standing just inside his own blue line, senior defenseman David Belluche sent a hard wrist shot through traffic that Parsons never saw, making it 3-1.
Exeter was experiencing blackout conditions in its ability at moving the puck past the neutral zone and into the Big Blue territory. Much of that had to do with a gritty defensive unit as well as the front liners swarming back quickly to back check and poke check the Big Red and, in the process, disrupt their transitional play towards the Andover net.
Meanwhile, the Big Blue was able to create separation once inside the offensive zone but couldn't to add to their lead.
"I thought we had a couple of opportunities to make it a 4-1 game but couldn't and that was became big," said Big Blue head coach Dean Boylan. "The kids fired some quality shots on net but they just didn't go in. Our kids worked very hard tonight. As a team I don't know where we'll end up in regards to the postseason. But I am proud of our kids and what they've accomplished. We grew as a team as the season went forward and we've continued to improve. I think beating Dexter-Southfield School (back on February 1st) really turned things around for us. That was a big win. Going to the Elite 8 is out of my control but I feel we've done what we can do so we'll see what happens."
At 11:19 of the second, the Big Red inched closer. Sophomore Devin Moore was left unattended at the right slot. Taking a diagonal pass from Providence College-bound Spenser Young, who is only a sophomore, the forward had enough time to set up and fire a shot past Wurman (21 saves), making it a 3-2 game.
PAA came out for the third like a team on a mission. Its forward lines powered ahead with with abandon, often catching PEA playing back on its heels. Shots on Parsons (31 saves) were becoming random, however nothing was getting through the senior. That, in turn, kept the Big Red's spirits up. Despite the lack of offense for much of the period, Exeter continued in its pursuit to try and even this contest up. Thanks to Neiley, the Big Red did just that. Over the duration of the third, Exter sent five more shots Wurman's but could not come up with that go-ahead marker.
"This was a case of two teams that really wanted to win tonight," Exeter head coach Dana Barbin said. "From our standpoint we were down 3-1 so it's a good way for us to come back. We just played 29 hockey games and only lost four times. If that doesn't get us home ice then I can't be mad at my team. But it doesn't matter what I think. It all comes down to opponents’ records. I thought (Parsons) really played solid for us after allowing them some goals early. I mean they out-shoot us 13-0 at one point in the third so tip of the hat to Jack for keeping us in it. He's played well for us and is either going Tufts University or St. Anselm College."
In the overtime period, with both teams enjoying one power play opportunity each, the Big Red put two shots on net to Andover's zero.
"I think we can honestly beat anybody (in the tournament) but the right Exeter team needs to show up," Neiley said. "If one goal goes in we can't let the flood gates open. I think tonight was an important game for us. We haven't had to show much resilience this year. We're the kind of team that will get up early and dominate. We needed this tonight and show that we are a team that can come back. That was a hot Andover team that has been playing extremely well. But I feel we have a lot of confidence now in our ability."