GOFFSTOWN, Mass. -- At one end of the ice to the other, Gunnery and Milton continued to match each another shift for shift.
After the first 18 minutes of play, neither club found its way on the scoreboard. Finally, both offenses came to life in the latter frames. With plenty of offensive chances for both teams, it was Gunnery which managed to demonstrate a bit more offense than its counterpart. Daniel Haider's rebound tally off a Milton turnover at 3:22 of the third period gave the Highlanders a two-goal lead they would not relinquish as they held on for a 3-2 triumph Sunday night in the NEPSAC Stuart/Corkery (Elite 8) Tournament championship held inside Thomas F. Sullivan Arena.
"We have worked so hard day in and day out to get to this moment and it feels unbelievable," said Haider, a senior from Anchorage, Alaska. "All of us pulled together and we made it happen. We truly believe that we earned this."
No. 5 Gunnery, had a tough road to hoe in claiming its first championship since 1990. The Highlanders (24-6-1) defeated defending three-time Elite 8 champion Salisbury in their quarterfinal match up on Wednesday. Yesterday, they knocked off top seed Avon Old Farms in the semifinals. Knowing such a feat would not be complete without defeating the Mustangs, Gunnery, which has been dealing with injuries and sickness throughout the course of the year, was determined to see it through and did just that.
"This is a credit to our guys," said Highlanders head coach Craig Badger, in his 11th season. "The adversity we went through really brought this team together and it allowed us to have that it factor you need to play in these types of games. We know in every single game there is going to adversity. But we are prepared for it because we know it is coming and you have to continue to go through it."
In a tightly-contested game throughout, No. 6 seed Milton (20-7-2), who last won an Elite 8 crown in 2011, fired the opening salvo just 3:04 into the middle period. Working the puck into the Highlanders zone, Gunnery defenseman Keelan Ulnick slipped and lost his coverage. That, in turn, allowed the Mustangs to fly into the zone full-throttle. As part of an odd-man rush, Andrew Dumaresque fired a shot that was initially stopped by Gunnery goaltender Trevin Kozlowski. But the senior could not corral the puck. Alertly, Trevor Turnbull pounced in for a rebound goal and a 1-0 Mustangs lead.
"Milton plays a very good system and plays it well," Badger said. "They have enough talent that when they create turnovers they can take advantage. They have a great goalie and play well defensively. In my 11 years here that was the first time we have faced them."
With both clubs relatively playing things close to the vest, chances were at a premium at best. But two minutes after Turnbull's score, Cam Donaldson, a Cornell commit, got one back for Gunnery. Racing into the goal mouth area untouched, the senior took a pass from Gustaf Westlund and roped a shot past an unsuspecting Ethan Domokos to deadlock things at 1-1.
As was the case throughout, both teams had a few quality opportunities on net but Kozlowski and Domokos were both up to the task.
"We never steered off the course and kept our heads in the right spot throughout," said Kozlowski, who made 23 saves. "This team has never lost sight of our ultimate goal and in the end it paid off for us."
With 1:42 remaining in the frame, Gunnery took advantage of another Milton mistake and moved ahead 2-1. A Mustang turnover deep in the defensive zone set the stage for Evan Johnson's hard wrist shot into the back of the net.
"A key to our game is to attack and force turnovers," said Badger. "We want to go hard at guys and force teams to create turnovers. It was a good back and forth game. It was fast, intense and physical."
Haider's marker just minutes into the closing period gave Gunnery some breathing space, now up by a pair. The Highlanders, following the goal, continued to assault the Mustangs zone. However, nothing more got past Domokos, who finished with 31 stops. With half the period gone, the Mustangs were in dire need of any kind of pick-me-up. Dumaresque gave them one. Taking advantage of an odd-man rush, the senior push a shot past Kozlowski down low at 8:17 to make it a one score contest.
The offensive pace for Milton picked up dramatically following the goal, as it was now Gunnery trying to fend off the Mustangs attack.
"In any game a goal is going to give a team some energy," said Milton head coach Paul Cannata, whose club defeated top seed Kimball Union during Saturday's semifinal. "It's like a shot of adrenaline into your legs. We gave it a shot but I tip my had to Gunnery. They are a worthy champion. They are well-balanced, strong and steady. They have good goaltending and are well-coached. Not to take anything from Gunnery but that was a tough game yesterday at Kimball Union. It was a great win but you pay a price and then, in less than 24 hours, we have to turnaround and travel back up here tonight. That is not an excuse. I told our kids there is no shame in this loss. It was a great year by all of them."
As Milton continued to play the aggressor, the Highlanders began to experience some difficulty trying to work the puck away from their defensive zone. Milton's forwards and defensemen were working in unison by denying the Highlanders from crossing over the center line.
As a result, the Mustangs were able to get off some point-blank shots on Kozlowski in the latter moments, but the West Point commit was able to hold his ground, turning all aside and helping lift Gunnery to the title. Kozlowski started the year on the DL, missing the first nine games due to a broken thumb. But since his return, the Highlanders have been nearly unbeatable, going 13-1-0 since Jan. 29.
"He is the best player in New England in terms of his position as far as I'm concerned," Badger said. "Trevin's only two losses were against Avon and Salisbury during the regular season but he beat them both in the playoffs. Ultimately this win is a credit to our guys and our returning guys in particular. We have a lot of guys that, to the college world, are underrated but they just keep coming after you. This has been a very special team."