Defending Maryland Scholastic Hockey League champion Centennial wanted to leave no doubt that it is the best Howard County team heading into yesterday's rematch against second-place Atholton, which tied the Eagles, 5-5, in the season opener.
And thanks to Centennial senior Nate Hunt's hat trick and goalie Matt French's 10 third-period saves, the Eagles (8-0-1) handed Atholton (4-2-1) a 4-3 loss at the Columbia Ice Rink.
Centennial's victory over the Raiders clinched the MSHL's Central Division title and leaves the Eagles in the running with DeMatha for top seed in the four-team playoff.
"The difference in the game was our goaltending, which has improved 300 percent since the start of the season," Centennial head coach Kevin McMahon said, referring to French's 33 saves.
Hunt, the team captain, scored the Eagles' game-winning goal with 8:20 left in the final period. John Campbell assisted.
"If we had lost to them, sure we would have won the county title by points or some sort of draw, but they could still say they beat us," Hunt said. "This way, we won the title by beating everybody in the county, proving we are the best."
Atholton, which lost a 5-2 lead in the teams' first meeting, began the game at a disadvantage. Raiders starting goalie Shawn Crichley missed the first period and part of the second while driving home to get his contacts. But Crichley's backup, Chris Kennedy, played well.
Although Hunt beat Kennedy 32 seconds into the first period to give the Eagles a 1-0 lead, the Raiders goalie stopped 13 of the next 14 Centennial shots. Centennial grabbed a 3-1 advantage when Adam Bradt scored five minutes into the second period.
But the Raiders refused to quit. Atholton's Billy Carr scored two short-handed goals. His second goal of the second period, giving him the hat trick and tied the game at 3 with 29 seconds left.
"We were proud of our team's performance, but we would have liked a goal right there at the end," Atholton assistant coach Clai Carr said.