HOWELL — It had been almost four years since the Howell hockey team last beat Hartland. Since that game in mid-January of 2012, the Highlanders were winless in six straight contests against the Eagles, and had lost all but one of them.
The Highlanders, finally, were able to break that streak Tuesday night.
In their game to raise awareness and funds for those battling cancer, the white-and-pink dressed — rather than usually green-and-gold — Highlanders defeated Hartland in a low-scoring, 2-1 battle that came right down to the final buzzer.
Nursing the one-goal lead thanks to a clutch score with just over 4 minutes left from Max DiCicco, the Highlanders and game most valuable player goalie Nate George — according to DiCicco — buckled down and staved off Hartland’s attack to earn their first career victory over the rival Eagles.
“I feel so proud of this team right now,” George said after the game. “I am just overwhelmed, really.”
“It’s a huge win,” DiCicco added. “If we win the rest of our games we’re the KLAA West champions. The past couple years, we haven’t beaten them, so it really just felt great to finally beat them.”
Given teams are only three or four games into the season, talk of a division title is perhaps a bit premature. And, of course, DiCicco knows that. But much of his immediate reaction had to do with the emotions of the game that had just unfolded.
The Highlanders, finally, got the proverbial monkey off their backs.
The players will be the first to tell you that it had been too long since the school had defeated Hartland. Entering Tuesday night, the streak was at six games and it was approaching four years since Howell’s last win, an 8-4 victory on Jan. 16, 2012. No one on the team currently had a victory against the Eagles. And that is certainly enough to cause frustration.
Fortunately for them, they were able to channel that frustration into their play Tuesday.
It resulted in one of the team’s biggest victories under Howell coach Mike Mantua.
“This was a solid win,” Mantua said. “The kids are finally coming together and doing what they learned over the last three games they played. They came together tonight and took away time and space from Hartland. And they won in a playoff-type of atmosphere.”
The scoring started with Alex Gowan’s second-period goal that put Howell ahead 1-0. One assumed Hartland, which coach Rick Gadwa admitted didn’t wake up until late in the game, would come back fast and furious with its high-scoring offense.
Of course, much of that was due to George, who played phenomenal in net for Howell and was declared game MVP by teammates and was commended by his coach.
“Outstanding,” DiCicco said of George. “He kept us in the game the whole game.”
“Nate’s been playing really good for us this year,” Mantua said. “He’s building off last year. … He was kind of a sleeper and nobody really knew it. He was playing such great hockey. This year’s he just bringing it every game. … He’s been rock solid and that showed tonight.”
Only once did Hartland crack George’s code.
It came with 4:13 left in the third period when the Eagles had knotted the game at 1. It felt it was coming, as even Mantua admitted he knew his opponents weren’t about to be shut out, but as time ticked off the clock in the third, some started to wonder.
Josh Albring came through with what appeared to be the momentum-changing goal.
DiCicco made sure it wasn’t.
“I was just ticked off,” said the senior captain, who waited exactly 22 seconds before putting the Highlanders back on top, this time for good. “I wanted to get them back. Next shift out (I said to myself), ‘Do whatever you can to score a goal.'”
With 3:51 left in the game, and to the displeasure of Gadwa, that’s exactly what he did
“We pride ourselves on having a good offense,” the Hartland coach said. “Yet you only score one goal. You think by that time, the floodgates start to open and we go pack a couple more (goals) and win that game. That’s what we expected, so I kept my top line out there at that time. And you know what? They didn’t respond and they didn’t executed. It’s as simple as that.”
From there, the fired-up Highlanders weren’t going to be denied. Hartland controlled possession for the remaining time left in the game, but time after time Howell cleared it away. With a few seconds left, the Highlanders punched it past the blue line for the final time. The buzzer rang to declare the game over and Howell rushed the ice.
Hartland could only watch as its winning streak against its KLAA West foe was snapped.
“You expect things like this. You expect learning experiences during a season, and this is one of those,” Gadwa said. “But when you talk about expectations, we expect to win these games. Just to be blunt, I think we feel that we’re better. But we lost the game and that’s all a credit to Howell.
“I think they outplayed us. I think they buckled down and found their net. Their goaltender played great. … We finally, finally tied it up late and next shift they come back with an answer. That’s credit to Howell there and discredit to our guys for not continuing to ride off that momentum. When a team wants it more they’re gonna win 90 percent of the time.”
Howell wanted it more. And it finally, finally ended the streak.