MILTON, Mass. -- The NEPSAC postseason tournament may still be a couple of months away, but would it be shocking to anyone that follows prep school hockey to see both Belmont Hill and Milton Academy in it? The answer is a resounding "No."
The two ISL Keller Division rivals rank among the upper half of the New England Prep standings and neither hurt their position Thursday night. After three periods and one overtime, nothing was decided as the Hillies and Mustangs played to a 3-3 draw in a wildly entertaining contest inside Roberts Ice Rink.
Belmont Hill clung to a 3-1 lead late into the middle period before Milton picked itself off the mat by scoring a pair of unanswered goals to deadlock things. A five-minute overtime period ensued in which neither club could find the back of the net. However, Hillies forward Max Fields thought he had sent his team home a winner. The sophomore fired a shot from inside the left circle that trickled between the pads of Mustang goaltender Ethan Domokos as the extra stanza expired. But game officials waved it off, citing the puck had crossed the goal line after the final horn sounded.
The two teams will square off again on Feb. 17 in Belmont in what should be another rousing event.
Each squad endured its share of ebbs and flows throughout this one. Belmont Hill (8-4-2) controlled much of the first period by quickly advancing the puck down ice on every opportunity in an attempt to catch Milton's defense back on their collective heels. The Hillies, for the most part, spent a large quantity of time inside the Mustangs zone, putting up nine shots to Milton's two.
"It was a great prep hockey game," Belmont Hill head coach Jeremiah McCarthy said. "I think both teams had different times when they dominated. I was really pleased with our first period to get off the bus and come out flying like we did."
In spite of the Hillies dominance early on, only one shot made its way past Domokos. Defenseman Brian Matthews pushed in a rebound at 12:49 for a 1-0 lead. Matthews also registered two assists. Domokos, who finished with 20 saves, was instrumental during the first 18 minutes by keeping the Mustangs in this tilt.
"This is a good group of kids and there is no quit in them," said Mustangs head coach Paul Cannata, his team now 9-1-2. "It is a group that is going to keep coming at you. With their conditioning and mentality we always feel that we have a chance. It's nice to learn those lessons as the season goes on because no matter how you cut it, you are going to find yourself down at times. I think we started the season off as the hunter and now we are the hunted. We know we aren't going to sneak up on anybody. But those are good problems to have."
Showing more continuity in the offensive end during the second period, Milton notched the equalizer just 3:58 in after senior Andrew Dumaresque netted a power play goal from the right slot. The Mustangs celebration lasted less than a minute. Hillies junior Christian O'Neill gave his club back the lead. The forward sped along the left boards before unloading a rocket past Domokos and a 2-1 advantage. Later in the period, Belmont Hill would go on top by two scores. Eric Butte was left uncovered down the right side and made Milton pay for its mistake by sending a shot over Domokos' trapper.
With the period ticking down to a few precious seconds, it appeared as though the Hillies would head into the second intermission holding their two goal cushion. But resiliency became the word of the day for the Mustangs.
With one second remaining, Curtis Weyerhauser, standing in front of the Belmont Hill crease, took a behind the net pass from Trevor Turnbull and fired a one-timer past freshman Connor Hopkins to make it 3-2.
"We gave them momentum giving them that goal late," said McCarthy, who took the Hillies to the Martin/Earl Large School championship game last year where they fell to Brooks School. "That is something you never want to have happen as a coach."
As expected, Milton was feeding off the momentum of Weyerhauser's tally to open the third. Early on, the Mustangs worked with precision by moving the puck around the Hillies zone and setting up quality attempts. Milton sent four quick shots in Hopkins' direction. Yet none got by the Malden native, who finished with 17 stops.
Belmont Hill's strategy became more evident as the period continued. The Hillies were focusing on the defensive side, forcing the Mustangs to take shots from the perimeter and giving Hopkins time to react. In addition, they continued to sacrifice themselves by dropping down and blocking attempts before they could reach Hopkins.
"I felt in that third period things went back and forth," McCarthy said. "It was really well-fought. Each team had times when it was really scary because the puck seemed to be in each of our ends for long periods of time. Milton's record speaks to their capabilities and excellent decision making. They've been wildly successful thus far. It is nice to get a tie but I think both Paul and I can walk out feel we both could have won this one. We found out that we can play with them and now we've got to figure out how to win games like this to be one of the Elite 8 teams in the end."
The Hillies game plan was working beautifully until the closing minute of the frame. Resiliency returned for the Mustangs once Tyler Campbell grabbed hold of a loose puck in front of Hopkins and rang a shot off the crossbar and into the back of the net to tie matters and force overtime. Ironically, a similar type of game took place back on Monday. Milton fell into an early 2-0 deficit versus Tabor Academy before rallying back to tie it. However, Tabor scored an overtime goal and hand the Mustangs their only loss of the season.
"It is certainly not the way you draw it up, but coming off a tournament at the beginning of the week, I think we are very lucky to get the point tonight," Cannata said. "You take them anyway you can get them. You start playing these games in rapid fire so there is certainly some resiliency involved as we discovered. To do it twice in one week is certainly something to build on."