While Essex High School boys hockey coach Bill O’Neil doesn’t like to dwell on the past, Wednesday’s clash with Colchester was a rematch nearly one year in the making.
The Lakers prevailed in five overtimes of a pulsating playoff classic, a 5-4 decision that sent Colchester to the Division I finals and Essex home with its only defeat of the season.
“They really did want this one,” O’Neil said. “The crowd was chanting, ‘semifinals, semifinals’ and I told the guys, ‘there you go, they are reminding you.'”
The Hornets answered the call.
Nate Nelson’s tally with 7:12 left in the third period broke a deadlock and sent the Hornets past the Lakers, 4-3, in a high-end Metro Division battle at Leddy Park.
It was Nelson’s first goal of the season, another chapter added to this budding rivalry.
In last year’s thriller, Colchester’s Ryan Francis, then a sophomore, recorded three goals, including the game-winner — a hat-trick performance he predicted in honor of his late aunt.
“We were really devastated from last year; it was our only loss and I would say these guys are our biggest rival,” said Nelson, a junior who plays center on the first line. “It’s mostly because of that semifinal game. We don’t take to them lightly.”
Steve Jurkiewicz and Steve Morse had a goal and an assist, Luc Blanc handed out two assists and Brody Almeida also tallied as the Hornets (12-2-2) overcame another two-goal deficit — they rallied against North Country with a three-goal third period Saturday — to run their unbeaten streak to eight games.
“You gotta give the kids credit. They just fought back,” O’Neil said. “We are playing with a little more composure.”
Avery Steele scored twice and Ryan Francis had the opening goal for Colchester (10-4-2), which saw its season-high five-game winning streak come to an end.
“Both teams put some pucks in the net, both teams worked really hard. They came out with more goals than we did,” Colchester coach Greg Murray said. “They got a couple of bounces we didn’t get and they capitalized.”
Early on, the Lakers seized command, with Francis tipping in a rebound chance off Jake St. Pierre’s shot.
The Lakers grabbed a 2-0 lead with 5:21 left in the first, Steele, from the slot, knocking in a wrister.
Jurkiewicz’s power play goal late in the period cut the deficit in half.
Shortly after goaltender Brock Paquette (25 saves) stopped Steele’s shorthanded breakaway attempt, the Hornets pounced for back-to-back goals in the span of 1:32, Almeida and Morse with connecting.
Steele notched his second tally with 14.4 seconds to go in the second, benefiting from a faceoff win in Essex’s end.
On Essex’s decisive strike midway through the third, Nelson’s shot was originally stopped by Colchester goalie Matt McBride (21 saves) before trickling across the line.
“I didn’t know I got the goal until someone told me. I’ve been getting bad luck lately,” Nelson said.
“I’m glad I got one.”