By Kirk Luedeke
SALEM, N.H. -- Milton Academy got a late goal from Sean Okita to edge Kent School in a 2-1 contest for the Stuart/Corkery NEPSIHA open tourney title.
The game itself was a fitting end to a day that saw two other championships won in the small and large school categories, but the Stuart/Corkery was the crown jewel of the New England prep hockey circuit. Milton and Kent battled hard from the drop of the puck, and the contest was played at a high tempo from start to finish.
Head coach Paul Cannata (West Roxbury, Mass.) saw his top-seeded Mustangs, after a 25-3-1 regular season, go the distance after making things interesting along the way. His club needed multiple overtimes to knock off Noble & Greenough in the quarterfinal last week and then surrendered an early lead to Lawrence Academy before getting a hat trick from defenseman and captain Pat McNally to reach the title game.
"It’s certainly a tribute to the players and the season they had,” Cannata said. “They had some difficult challenges but were able to find the kind of success needed for the championship at the end.”
Milton had a short-lived 1-0 lead in the second period on a goal by defenseman Jake Turrin, only to see Kent come right back just 1:13 later when forward Drew Brown converted a rebound for the equalizer.
From there, the two teams battled hard, getting excellent performances from their penalty killing units as Milton and Kent saw time with the man advantage.
The 1-1 deadlock lasted until just 4:06 remained in the contest when defenseman Rob O’Gara slid the puck over to T.J. Schneider outside the right faceoff circle. The senior forward blasted the puck at Kent goalie Kevin Dluhy. The rebound came out to Okita, who ripped it into the open left side, sending the large and raucous Milton student section into bedlam.
Milton goaltender Sean Doughtery saved a brilliant performance for when it mattered most. He made a game-saving stop with just 10.8 seconds left and then again on standout Kent forward Cristoval “Boo” Nieves as time expired. The son of a disabled NY Firefighter who was part of the first response on 9/11 is also a standout lacrosse goalie with a penchant for making the big save at the right time.
“No hockey team has success without a quality goaltender,” said Cannata. “At times, teams derive not only their success but personality from certain players and Sean provided that kind of backbone and winning attitude for us all year.”
The play of Doughtery and Dluhy both made for an excellent contest that went down to the wire.
“This is our goal,” O’Gara told hockeyjournal.com after his team defeated Lawrence Friday. “I think we’re all mentally prepared and all ready to take it to them.”
The Kent Lions, coached by former NHLer Matt Herr, had their chances, but couldn’t solve the diminutive, but ultra-quick Doughtery, who was named to the NEPSIHA East All-Star Team that week. He showed everyone why he was worthy of such accolades in the championship game, making myriad tough saves on a Kent team that attacked relentlessly, led by Nieves and senior captain Noel Acciari (Johnston, R.I.)
"It was a great game and sometime in a game like this it comes down to two or three plays going your way -- or not,” Herr told the US. Hockey Report. “Milton was a great team and they played really well tonight."
Kent boasted several potential NHL draft picks in huge defenseman Mike McKee, an Ontario native who at age 17, is already 6-foot-5 and 230 pounds. He skates extremely well for such a big kid and played with an edge in both the semi-final and championship games. McKee is currently committed to Northeastern University for the fall of 2012 and could be a top-three pick in the NHL Entry Draft this June.
Nieves, a University of Michigan recruit, is a 6-foot-3 winger with blazing speed and terrific hands who scored a pair of goals and four points in the two weekend games. He is a 1994 birthdate and eligible for the 2012 NHL draft.
Milton featured the aggressive and attacking McNally, a fourth-round pick of the Vancouver Canucks last June, and O’Gara, a 6-foot-2 smooth-skating, heady two-way defenseman who should be picked in the middle rounds of the 2011 NHL draft.
Cannata’s squad demonstrated its worthiness as the tournament’s top seed by overcoming average performances early on with a near-perfect title game.
“We have to come out quick and hard; start a lot better than we have in the last few games,” O’Gara said. “If we do that, then we can take it home.”
On Sunday, O’Gara and his team did exactly that, capping a sensational season with the NEPSIHA’s top hardware.
“They played with a big target on their back for much of the season,” Cannata said. “They faced all comers and once in the tournament, with a little luck, they made it happen.”