NEW HAVEN, Conn. -- You had to wonder if a trend was taking place.
With the top seeds in Sunday night's other two NEPSAC championship games going down to defeat, would a similar scenario be in store for the Salisbury School?
The way seventh seed The Gunnery School was holding its own on the ice, it was a distinct possibility. But to understand the strength of the Crimson Knights program is knowing that such fears are a considerable waste of time.
Even though it took a little longer than it would've like, Salisbury completed its mission in dramatic style.
Evan Smith's goal at 15:19 in overtime lifted the Crimson Knights to a thrilling 3-2 triumph over the Highlanders and be crowned the Stuart-Corkery Tournament champions inside Yale University's Ingalls Rink.
The victory earns Salisbury (24-1-4) its second consecutive Elite 8 championship. Last year, they defeated the Kent School, after the Crimson Knights also hoisted trophies in 2009 and 2006.
The Gunnery (20-7-1) forced the extra frame by striking for a pair of goals late in the third period.
But all of that was soon forgotten following Smith's heroics after taking a a tic-tac-toe pass from Derek Barach and sending a hard wrist into an open right side of the net.
"I was just busting down the line and I saw Barach up high and gave him a drop pass," said Smith, who will play his college hockey in the same arena next year for Yale. "He fed it back to me and I had an open right side of the net to put it into. It was deflating being up two goals with five minutes left and them coming back to tie it. But all of us kept our composure and we came out in overtime and were determined to repeat as champs and that's what happened."
After a scoreless opening period, Salisbury went to work in the middle frame. At 4:12, Kale Kane, a junior from Kahnawake, Quebec, on the power play, dove head first to push a wobbling puck across the goal line for a 1-0 lead. The initial shot came from Barach. The puck bounced off of Highlander goaltender Matt Schneider and flipped into the air and behind his left leg pad where Kane alertly knock it in. Barach, a senior, finished with two assists, giving him a team-high 33.
Four minutes later, with Alec Mehr serving a charging penalty, it was Kane coming up huge again. Lined up in the left slot, the forward took a nice crossing feed from Matthew Muzyka and beat Schneider with a one-timer to make it a two goal contest. Schneider, a senior, had a solid first period, stopping several quality shots to keep the game scoreless.
Overall, his play was stellar on the night except for a couple of miscues in the second and Smith's game-winner in overtime. Schneider finished with 35 saves.
Not to be overshadowed in all of this, Crimson Knights netminder Mitchell Datz, a senior from Kitchener, Ontario, was equally impressive between the pipes. Datz turned aside 20-of-22 shots with the only blemishes coming in the third when he surrendered goals to Mehr at 12:31 with the man-advantage, and couldn't catch up to Joey Fallon's bullet from the right wing circle at 15:18 to even this tilt.
"Overall I was pretty confident during the overtime," Datz said. "We hadn't lost an overtime game all year so I was pretty confident in my teammate's abilities to score. It was a little nerve-wracking when they tied it up but going into overtime I knew I still had a job to do and needed to remain focused and confident. Fortunately my teammates got the win."
Salisbury's defense did a nice job getting through those last few minutes of the third as they buckled down refusing to allow the Highlanders to gain any further momentum from their scores. In overtime, the Crimson Knights controlled much of the play. They consistently worked the puck inside The Gunnery zone, putting up 11 shots in the process with Smith's being the most important one of the night.
"This was a fantastic hockey game by both teams," Salisbury head coach Andrew Will said. "It was two teams playing their best hockey at the right time of the year and it showed. We score two goals in the second period and they come back with two in the third. In overtime all we were focusing on was getting the next goal. Giving up those two goals certainly takes wind out of your sails but our guys went back to the locker room and refocused. We didn't worry about what happened because it's so easy to do that. We just set our sight to coming back and playing our brand of hockey which I thought we did."
Martin/Earl final: Loomis-Chaffee 3, St. Paul's 2
In a wide open affair at both ends of the ice, leave it to a turnover to decide matters.
Loomis-Chaffee senior forward Alex Esposito, from nearby West Haven, picked off an errant pass inside the St. Paul's zone, skated in alone on goaltender Nathan Colannino (23 saves) before beating the junior glove side at 9:35 of the third period to give his team a 3-2 victory in the Martin/Earl Tournament. The triumph marks the first NEPSAC boys hockey title for No. 6 L-C (15-10-3).
Ironically, it was Esposito who scored the game-winning goal in the closing seconds of Saturday's 2-1 semifinal victory over Phillips Academy-Andover.
"Their defenseman was bringing the puck up and I went down and it hit my hand," said Esposito of his deciding score. "I just came down on their goalie and held him out a little bit and then went short side. This is such a huge win for our program."
L-C got hot at the right time heading down the stretch. They closed out the season going 5-0-1 in their final six games. According to head coach John Zawisza, this team was built on a premise that you had earn what you got with a lot of hard work.
"We had a couple of rough patches during the season but I think we started peaking at the right time and were able to come away with a championship," said Zawisza, whose club lost to St. Paul's in a regular season meeting back on Dec. 19. "I credit our guys' persistence during the season. Even when it was rough they still showed up for work every day. We were able to find consistency over the last two weeks of the season and the kids found that will to win."
With both teams getting a few quality looks on net during the opening period, the game remained scoreless until the waning seconds of the frame.
With 14 seconds showing, Austin Ricci pushed in a short-side shot into the net, putting No. 1 St. Paul's (20-9-1) ahead 1-0.
But L-C, showing a little more patients with the puck in the second period than it did in the opening frame, answered back. Senior defenseman Matt O'Donnell, flying down the left wing, beat goaltender Nathan Colannino with a hard backhander at 8:03 to knot things at 1-1.
St. Paul's followed that up with a couple of scoring chances on goalie Nick Kamm (13 saves) but were denied. Back came L-C down the other end. Ben Sharf delivered a perfect centering pass over to Esposito in front of the crease and Esposito buried it into the back of the net to give L-C a 2-1 lead after 36 minutes.
"Over the course of his career Alex has gotten a lot of big goals for us," Zavisza said. "As a coach you want your top guys to have games like that especially when it really matters."
St. Paul's wouldn't be down for long though. Just 2:08 into the third, senior Cam McCusker, got enough his stick on the puck to slip it past the out-stretched left leg pad of Kamm to deadlock things at 2 apiece. But the offense went silent thereafter.
"Loomis played very hard so give them all the credit," St. Paul's head coach Mark Bozek said. "Either we were tired or we didn't have our best game tonight. It's tough to come out on the losing end after you've worked so hard all year. We gave up a couple of odd-man rushes and they made us pay for it. Rarely tonight did we have an odd-man rush."
Piatelli/Simmons final: Kimball Union 5, Dexter 1
The Wildcats claimed their second Piatelli/Simmons Tournament crown in three years after storming past top seed Dexter.
KUA jumped out to a 2-0 lead in the second period and never looked back.
The second-seeded Wildcats (26-6-5) officially put this one in the books with a three-goal third. Westwood native Bobby Hall and Andover product Tyler Bird scored 13 seconds apartj, both coming from the left circle, midway through the final frame to extend KUA's advantage to 4-0. For Bird, it was his team-high 33rd marker of the season.
Dexter junior sniper Ryan Donato got one back (his team-high 37th) a few minutes later but the damage was already done. Dom Franco (Scituate, R.I.) added an empty-net goal for the Wildcats in the waning seconds to finish this one out. KUA defeated Holderness in the 2012 championship game. Prior to that, the Wildcats won titles in 2010 and 1982.
After an uneventful first period, the Wildcats started to force the action during the middle frame. The up-tempo style would lead to a pair of goals. Chris Shero started things off by ripping a one-timer off a left wing circle face off feed from Brendan Riley to put KUA on the board at 12:16. Three minutes later, with the Wildcats continuing to move the puck up ice, forward Jacob Paluch, positioned at his own blue line, took a pass and fired a shot through traffic that Dexter goalie Pat Fraser (20 saves) never saw coming.
"We did get stronger as the game went on," KUA head coach Tim Whitehead said. "We obviously had a ton of respect for Dexter and knew it would be a tight game. The final score was not indicative of how this game was. We were able to kill off some penalties which was very important because we knew they had a strong power play.
“Our goaltender Paul Leger (18 saves) played very well in net and was our best penalty killer tonight. We just kept pushing offensively and got more chances with each period."
Dexter, which was in search of its second championship having last won it in 2011, finishes the season at 22-6-2.
"They did a nice job of clogging up the neutral zone on us, especially early which limited us offensively," Dexter head coach Dan Donato said. "They also did a nice job neutralizing Ryan before he got going a bit. We made some coverage mistakes on those two goals in the third. Both of those players are high-end guys and that is what high-end guys do when you make mistakes. I thought their first two lines really moved the puck well for them."