There was a playoff-like atmosphere at the Essex Skating Facility Feb. 8 as the Essex High School (EHS) boys’ hockey team hosted Rice Memorial High School in a hard-fought rematch.

The Knights took the first meeting of the year by a 3-1 decision on Dec. 28 for what remains as the Hornets’ only loss of the season--EHS winning the second tilt 3-2 Saturday night.

Rice scored the evening’s opening goal--only to see the hosts respond with three unanswered tallies. The Knights got within one in the final 30 seconds of regulation after pulling their goalie, but they couldn’t find the equalizer as Essex skated out with the victory.

“Both teams played extremely hard,” said EHS head coach Chris Line. “We haven’t been in a lot of those situations this year, so it’s good to experience it and learn from it. It’s always nice to come out on top. I’m proud of our team for responding, but it gives us some things to work on as we move towards the playoffs.”

After the loss to Rice earlier in the year, Essex tied Potsdam (N.Y.) its following game; since then, EHS had rattled off 10-straight wins.

While they have three regular season home contests left on the schedule, the Hornets would especially like to invite fans and the public to their Feb. 19 tilt against Stowe. That 6:15 p.m. puck drop has been marked as the team’s ALS Charity Game with all ticket sales, 50/50 raffle proceeds, and additional donations going to support the ALS Foundation in memory of EHS goalie David Ballard ‘80. Ballard passed away in August following a five-year battle with the disease.

The two sides tried to lay the groundwork through the opening 15 minutes and establish their style of play for the game. Rice went on the power play shortly into the second period, but EHS senior goaltender Paul Gordon came up with a few big saves to keep the contest deadlocked at 0-0.

The scoreboard would finally change midway through the second stanza, however, after Essex picked up its third penalty of the frame. With a 5-on-3 advantage, Rice played it over to the right circle where a shot was fired up top for the first goal of the night. The Knights would be unable to turn that score into momentum, however, as the Hornets instead used it as fuel for their fire.

“I thought our whole energy changed,” Line said. “We were a little lethargic up until that point. We hadn’t practiced in two days because of the weather, but I think that really sparked us. We were able to create offense down low, sustain it, and keep them on their heels a little bit.”

The Hornets came right back and tied it up seconds after getting back to full strength when junior Joseph Mahar left the box and found nothing but open ice in front of him. Sophomore Tobey Cram was simultaneously bringing the puck down the bench side of the sheet, and he then played a crossing pass to Mahar; the junior Hornet ripped it home to even things at 1-1.

Exactly one minute later, EHS pulled ahead as the home team continued to push its offense forward. Junior Maxwell Line took a pass on the left side of the ice and sent the puck just off frame--the ricochet bouncing behind the cage to freshman Andrew Forcier who met it at the goal line. With a tight angle, the rookie sent a shot off the back of the Rice netminder for the 2-1 advantage.

Essex had a stellar penalty kill a few minutes into the third period with Gordon barely being tested. One of the Hornets’ power plays then paid off as they got a valuable piece of insurance with 6:41 left to go. Junior Ryan Clark and sophomore Matthew Cincotta set up the play while sophomore Justin Prim finished it from the right side--beating the Rice goalie for what proved to be the game winner.

Rice had a golden opportunity with about five minutes left to go, but Gordon swallowed up the Knight take as the visitors had their backs pushed against the wall. After Rice pulled its goalie with a couple minutes to go, EHS squandered multiple looks at an open net which could have put the game away.

Instead, the Knights eventually got the puck to the front of the goal and flicked it into the back of the cage with 29.8 ticks left to go.

Rice had one more look in the final seconds with a screen at the top of the Essex crease, but the deflection was sent high and off target for the Hornets to celebrate the victory.

“I don’t think it was necessarily the cleanest game,” Coach Line said. “There were certainly some mistakes and penalties that neither team probably wanted to take. We certainly have to work more on that 5-on-6 when they have the extra man and pull the goalie. We have to get a little bit more organized in that situation, but--again--I thought it was a hard-fought game.

“I think we had more of a business approach to it--as opposed to getting all riled up,” Coach Line said about how different Saturday was compared to the first game against Rice. “When you get too high or too low, then mistakes tend to happen more frequently, and that certainly was the case when we played them earlier in the year.”

Gordon finished with 28 saves in the win.

“Paul played great,” Line said of his senior goalie. “He faced a lot of shots and stood his ground. He made some really big saves.”

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