GATES MILLS — It’s no stretch to call Nordonia’s game Saturday with Mayfield the biggest game in the history of the program.
The Knights met Mayfield at Gilmour Academy — which is the home rink from both programs — amid a playoff-like atmosphere.
Both teams came into the contest at 8-0-1 in the Greater Cleveland High School Hockey League’s Blue South Division. In the 13-year history of the program, Nordonia had never won a division in the GCHSHL.
Thanks to some overtime heroics from its captain, Nordonia is on the precipice of ending that drought.
Junior captain Carson Carell scored with 4:40 left in overtime, providing the difference in a tight 2-1 win for the Knights.
The win put Nordonia in the driver’s seat in the Blue South with one game left. All that stands between the Knights and the title is a game with winless Garfield Heights next Sunday at Gilmour at 7:10 p.m.
Carrell noted winning the Blue South has been the Knights’ top priority this winter.
"That’s been the goal since the beginning of the season," Carrell said. "This is for all the people that doubted us. This is for all the people who laughed at us and said we’d never get a banner. We want to put that one in the gym."
Knights coach Rich Cinalli told his team to be ready for a tight contest.
"Not to expect to play overtime, but to expect everything to be tight today," Cinalli said. "It was a very close game. Both teams played hard and clean. I think we were a little bit deeper and were able to grind out a goal at the end."
Indeed, the game was much less wide open than Nordoonia and Mayfield’s first game, which was a penalty-marred 5-5 draw on Dec. 15.
There was virtually nothing to separate the two teams in the first period, as Mayfield’s protect defense and Nordonia’s forecheck canceled each other out.
Mayfield had a slight 8-7 edge in shots on goal, as the Wildcats hit the post in the first period.
Both team’s goaltenders had huge games, as the Knights finished with a 35-25 edge in shots on goal.
Knight goaltender Tommy Lippincott finished with 23 saves and did a great job controlling his area.
"Tommy played fantastic today," Cinalli said.
Mayfield goaltender Tyler Krueger was just as sharp, as he finished with 33 saves, fending off the Nordonia barrage which got stronger as the game went on.
"He was everywhere tonight," Cinalli said. "How we beat him was to get in there and grind in front of the net."
After a scoreless first period, Mayfield scored first early in the second period.
With 11:34 left in the second, Mayfield captain Hunter Jeppe pounced a rebound in front of goal and back-handed the puck past Lippincott. Austin Jackson and Myles Haluska were credited assists.
The Knights had an almost immediate answer, thanks to the Carrell twins.
Junior Kenton Carrell got the the puck in the neutral zone and streaked up the center of the ice, before sliding the puck to Carson Carrell, who one-timed it past Krueger to make it 1-1 with 11:06 left in the second period.
Nordonia trailed for just 28 seconds.
"It was big for us to get that goal," Cinalli said. "We didn’t let our heads go down. We kept them up and went twice as hard."
The rest of regulation saw the Knights continue to add to their advantage in possession and shots on goal. Nordonia outshot Mayfield 11-5 in the second period and 14-11 in the third.
Penalties were not a factor in the game, as Nordonia killed off by Mayfield power plays. Nordonia’s lone power play lasted just 34 seconds before a slashing call on Kenton Carrell negated it.
"Our thought process was control the pressure," Cinalli said. "If we get to the puck first, we don’t need to worry about penalties."
Both teams had odd-man rushes in the final minute of regulation, but did not find a way past Krueger and Lippicott, sending the contest to overtime at 1-1.
Mayfield took the first shot in the extra eight-minute period, but the Knights forced their way into the Wildcats’ end.
It was left wing Max Zuschin who created the winning goal for the Knights. Zuschin fought off a pair of Mayfield defenders before feeding the puck to an open Carrell.
"Honestly, I don’t even remember what happened," Carrell said. "Max just got the puck right to my stick and I just shot it over the blocker."
Nordonia’s bench exploded in celebration after the goal as Carrell skated the length of the ice to celebrate with the Nordonia fans.
"The fans were fantastic," Cinalli said. "We talked to them all week long about this game. They pumped us up when we were exhausted."