WILMINGTON — Following a scoreless first period Saturday afternoon against Arlington Catholic, St. John's Prep head coach Kristian Hanson decided to move Colin Prior back up to his old spot at right wing on the team's first line.
It was just what the Eagles needed.
Prior worked his magic with linemates Christian Cowles and Danny Haugh, scoring a goal and setting up another as the red-hot Eagles qualified for the state tournament with a 3-1 non-league victory over the Cougars.
Cowles, the team's leading scorer with 17 goals and 27 points, figured in all three scores with two goals and an assist. Thanks to its first line, St. John's Prep (9-5-3) struck three times in the middle period, when all the scoring occurred.
"We're on a roll now," said Cowles, whose team has won three straight and four of its last five contests.
"It was great to be back with Prior again. He has lived on my street (in Georgetown) since I was four years old, and we've been playing hockey together for a long, long time. Haugh is also a good friend. We all communicate well."
That line clicked to put St. John's on the board with a power play goal at 3:51 of the second period when Cowles beat AC goalie Stephen Needham (25 saves) with a wicked slap shot.
But the lead was short lived, as a Prep defenseman turned the puck over in front of his own net while on the penalty kill, and AC's Artem Zemelyev beat Eagles keeper Kyle Pettoruto (17 sves) with a nifty move.
"We didn't play our best game today," said Hanson, whose team finished tied for second place in the Catholic Conference with B.C. High this season with eight points (3-4-1). "We just beat B.C. High and Malden Catholic, and I think the mentality was we could just show up today and beat Arlington Catholic. But this game could have gone either way. They played hard all game.
"Our power play worked well and moved the puck around, but you never want to give up a goal like we did. That mistake hurt us on their goal, but I also have to give (Zemelyev) credit. He deked Kyle and put the shot up under the crossbar."
Cowles put his team ahead for 30 seconds later when he lugged the puck up the boards, cut into the middle and beat Needham stick side. That line kept up its relentless pressure and scored an insurance tally with five minutes remaining in the period when Prior buried Haugh's rebound.
"I had moved Prior to the second line to give us more balance, but that wasn't working so I put him back (on the first line) to start the second period," Hanson said. "I had to do it because they are so good together.
"Christian had another big game. I'm really going to miss him next year. He is so strong on his feet and strong on the puck. He makes things happen."
St. John's Prep could easily have scored three or four more times if not for the superb goaltending of Needham, who robbed Cowles a couple of times and made two sensational stops to deny strong bids by senior winger Steve DiCarlo.
"Our goaltending has been hot and cold this year so it was nice to get a performance like that," said AC coach Dan Shine, his 5-7-4 team second in the Catholic Central League. "I think we played pretty well against a big, strong, physical team. They had a few more opportunities, especially in the second period, and capitalized on them — that was the difference in the game."
Pettoruto set the tone early on when he robbed Cougars' sophomore forward John Needham in the slot than two minutes in.
"That was huge," said Hanson. "You never want to give up a goal so early, and he came up big when that kid was all alone in the slot."