EXETER, N.H. – It wasn't a playoff game but is sure had characteristics of one.
Dexter Southfield and Phillips Exeter have both earned their respective places among New England Prep School hockey lore. Year in and year out, these two high-profile programs are often situated in the upper-echelon when it comes to overall success.
Friday night, the two teams faced off against one another, giving those in attendance quite a show. During its first 15 games, Phillips Exeter had yet to taste defeat. Ranked No. 1 by U.S. Hockey Report, the Big Red are looking every bit the part. Last year, the Big Red fell to Salisbury School in the semifinals of the Elite 8 Tournament.
Likewise, Dexter, which reached the Piatelli-Simmons small school divisio championship game a year ago before losing to Kimball Union Academy, hasn't appeared to have lost a step. After being dominated in the early going by Phillips Exeter, Dexter rebounded nicely shortly thereafter, hanging with the Big Red for the remainder of this tilt before settling for a 2-2 tie.
"That team is very good," said Phillips Exeter head coach Dana Barbin. "I thought both teams played their guts out tonight."
Dexter (9-5-4) held a slim 2-1 lead heading into the final intermission. However, Chicago native Max Roche sailed a shot from a sharp angle, just to the left of goaltender Nick Lanni, at 2:49 of the final period to knot things up. Both clubs see-sawed back and forth the rest of the frame but neither could not find the back of the net, thus forcing a five minute overtime period.
Midway through it the extra stanza, Dexter had three golden opportunities to poke the puck past netminder Bryan Botcher, who finished with 25 stops. But the post grad managed to keep the puck in front of him, much to the shagrin of Dexter. A short time later, Phillips Exeter (15-0-1) was given a pair of quality chances to end this contest, yet came away empty thanks to Lanni, who made 30 saves resulting in the deadlock.
Despite the Big Red taking control of the opening period, they skated into the first break with nothing to show for it. However, just 25 seconds into the middle frame, all of that changed. Senior forward Teddy Hart skated down the right side and blistered a shot that caromed off of the right goal post. Alertly, junior Devin Moore found himself in the right position to bat the puck past Lanni for a 1-0 lead.
Moments later, back to back Dexter penalties put Phillips Exeter in a position to add to its lead. Yet both times, the Big Red was turned aside having gone 0 for 3 on the power play for the game.
"It has been hard for teams to stop our power play but Dexter had three of them so credit to them," Barbin said. "But here is what I know. On January 23rd, I'm coaching a team that hasn't lost a game yet so that's pretty good stuff. In my 28 years here, we have never gone this far with a zero in the loss column. To have zero losses at this point I'm thrilled. I'm very proud of my team and we have a team that bust their butts all the time and has some skill."
Halfway through the second, the Big Red started to get careless with the puck, turning it over several times inside the neutral zone. With Phillips Academy having lost a bit of their competitive edge, Dexter was not about to let this opportunity slip by.
At 12:43, Dexter's Pat Daly, a highly-talented junior from Hamilton, worked his way behind the Big Red defense and scored on a backhand to even things at 1-1. Four minutes later, senior Kevin Hock put Dexter in front with a re-direct just outside the crease to send his club into the second break ahead 2-1.
“Pat Daly has really been a spark for us all season,” Dexter head coach Dan Donato said. “He can really skate and has tremendous speed. There should be a lot of guys coming to see him soon and really start to think about making an offer to him. Our kids came ready to play tonight but obviously we have a lot of respect for Exeter. I think we found ourselves a little as a team tonight."
Roche's tally to start the third seemed to breath new life back into the Big Red.
But to Dexter's credit, they stepped up its attack by pinching Phillips Exeter along the boards and shutting down the slot areas. In turn, the Big Red was giving Dexter the perimeter, opting instead to close down anything within 10 feet of Botcher. Each would prove beneficial in the late stages of this one.
"We've got some talent but we are young," said Donato. "I thought our goalie played great. Nick is a senior who has worked his butt off to fight for playing time and certainly gave us a solid game tonight. I think being such a young team, at times you tend to run into a roller coaster effect. But overall, we are happy with the direction we are going in."