By Ben Kaufmann
HIGHGATE – When Missisquoi was whistled for contact-to-the-head and sentenced to five minutes of penalty kill midway through the second period, the Thunderbirds were tied with Harwood, 2-2. Six minutes of chaos later, the Highlanders held a 6-3 lead and would go on to win Wednesday’s game by that score.
Harwood’s most devastating goal came seven seconds after MVU’s Jackson Porter had scored shorthanded to tie the game at 3-3. Now up a goal with 3:32 left on the power-play, Harwood (9-0) railed off two more goals – one still on the power-play and one at even strength – to remain undefeated on the season.
“I think we kind of beat up ourselves there,” MVU coach Chris Hatin said of the crucial penalty. “Not that I think the check was overly strong, but when you’re coming back on a back-check we need to strip the puck from a player and not go after the body. There’s a time and a place for a big hit and that was just the wrong place.”
Missisquoi (4-3-1) had been up a 2-1 after the first period thanks to goals from Steven King (assisted by Charlie Gates) and Owen Kane (assisted by Porter) sandwiched around a Harwood tally. The Highlanders knocked in a loose puck just over four minutes into the second to knot the score at 2-2.
With seven minutes left in the second, a hard collision in front of the MVU goal drew an immediate reaction from the officials and ended with a Thunderbird player sent off and a five-minute power-play which could not be stopped early for a Harwood goal.
Hatin said while he saw nothing dirty from his player, he had full confidence in the referees and trusted that their decision was made in the name of player safety (the Harwood player on the receiving end of the hit was uninjured).
“They’re closer to the play. I wasn’t right there, I’ll go back and look at it tonight and see what it was but they’re closer to the play and that’s their job to be looking out for those hits,” said Hatin, quickly shifting the focus back to the players and what each team did with the extended power-play.
“They took advantage of it, we gave them the momentum in the second period,” Hatin said of Harwood. “It’s one of those things where you can’t change what happened, you’ve got to go out and move forward from it. They responded well.”
With just over a minute gone in the penalty-kill, T-Bird goalie PJ Bouchard made a pair of quick saves but could do nothing about the third rebound being tipped in to put the visitors up 3-2.
The prognosis grim, MVU sprung to life with a fantastic goal. King nimbly blocked a Harwood pass just on the Highlander side of the center line which surely would have led to a breakaway otherwise. King surveyed his options for a second and flipped a brilliant, leading pass to Porter. Porter cut to the center and shielded the puck away from a diving defenseman as he shot to make it a 3-3 game.
Before the Missisquoi fans had finished cheering, Harwood had taken the ensuing faceoff to the other end and slipped in a go-ahead goal to earn a 4-3 lead. A little over a minute later and with 32-seconds still left in the penalty, the Highlanders tacked on another to make it 5-3. A minute later with the penalty finally gone and five skaters back on the ice for MVU, Harwood twisted the knife and scored to end the second with a 6-3 lead.
Missisquoi was out-shot 40-28 on the night were probably outplayed by Harwood overall, but not nearly as much as the final score indicated. The hosts had a well-earned lead after one and Bouchard was impressive, surrendering just two even-strength goals while stopping 34. And MVU left some chances on the ice.
“We had some battles down low,” said Hatin. “I feel like we didn’t connect on a ton of plays in front of the net. I feel like there are opportunities that we could have buried and didn’t but I feel like it’s one of those games that got away from us.”
Forgetting a little under six minutes of disaster for MVU, the Thunderbirds looked plenty capable of hanging with the only undefeated team remaining in Division II. Given some different luck and no players being sent to the locker room at the midway point, Missisquoi should fare much better in the February 28th season finale at Harwood or if the two should meet in the postseason.
For now, MVU will have to quickly put away Wednesday’s memories. The T-Birds travel to Massachusetts Saturday for a game against Lowell High School in what Hatin described as likely his team’s toughest opponent this year.