Brighton High's hockey team had gone the season undefeated until Highland beat the Bengals last week to force a second championship game in the double-elimination state Class AAA tournament.
When Highland's Chris Thomas stole the puck at center ice with a little more than 20 seconds remaining and the score tied 3-3 at a jam-packed Cottonwood Recreation Center Thursday night, Brighton was on the way to a second straight loss and the Rams were headed for a seventh state title and apparently the first team ever to win a third title in a row.Thomas snatched a puck in the neutral zone and went the other way with it, finding teammate Anthony Jenkinson cruising up the right wing and passing to him. Both Highland players converged on the net, and Jenkinson shoved in the game-winner at the :20 mark.
With 9 seconds left and Brighton's goalie pulled, Kurt Burningham scored an empty-net goal to make it a 5-3 championship final. Thomas assisted on that play and three other goals for five points.
"Chris has been our whole team all year," said Coach Butch Niederhauser. "He's probably got 70 goals. The first couple of times we played them, they collapsed three men on him."
With the end of the game came the now-obligatory brawl between these two teams. With trouble anticipated, numerous county sheriffs were on hand to control the crowd, but, like last year when Highland beat Brighton 5-0, only a few players were allowed to remain on the ice to collect the trophies and medals.
The rest were banished for fighting. Highland had seven men available for postgame ceremonies this year; last year, after a 188-penalty-minute championship game, only six Rams could get their medals.
This time, though, somebody was hurt. Brighton defenseman Jason Lowder suffered an apparent concussion and was taken by paramedics to St. Mark's Hospital.
After Highland opened scoring at 10:58 of the second period, when Preston Cochrane banged in a power-play goal from the slot off a feed from Thomas from out of the left-wing corner, Brighton assumed control with goals at 9:14 and 6:20 by Lowder and Shawn Hansen. Hansen's was unassisted, as he stole the puck at his own blue line and lugged it all the way for a feinting backhander.
The Rams, however, took full advantage of power plays late in the second, defenseman Larry Limb scoring twice in 20 seconds - at 1:42 and 1:22 - to take a 3-2 lead.
"It was beautiful," said Niederhauser, adding the Rams had been working on getting the puck to their pointmen. "Our points were open all night."
To Niederhauser, the early part of the game had been a matter of the Rams being tentative, "but we started to realize we had to be the aggressor," he said. "We decided it's our trophy, and they had to come and get it."
They almost did. With 7:05 left in the third period, Brighton's Sean Davis shot a puck that trickled past goaltender Justin Hermansen and followed the outer part of the goal line as it slid across, finally ending up outside the post. Then, Highland put the Bengals on a power play, and Brighton defenseman Hansen scored through traffic from up the slot, eluding one defender at the blue line before firing to tie the game 3-3 at 4:26.
In the Class AA game, also played Thursday at Cottonwood, Olympus, a former AAA power that had to drop down a notch at midseason because it hadn't enough experienced skaters and was losing too many games, came back from the losers' bracket of the tourney to win the state championship 9-1 over Judge.
Titan forward Dave Strong scored the game's first four goals, three unasssisted, and totaled six (four unassisted) for the night.
Frank Conte, Titan center and the Salt Lake Golden Eagles' assistant equipment manager, scored two other goals for Olym pus. Chris Dye had one. The Judge goal went to Jeff Moll.
It was Olympus' second straight win over Judge; last week the Titans won 3-2 to force a second championship encounter.
In 1987, Olympus had played in the AAA title game, losing to Highland 6-2, but Coach Ken Moizer said last year there were few returnees from the runner-up team and this season there were only about eight or nine players to begin the season. The players recruited other players. "We teach them to skate; then we teach them to play hockey," Moizer said. They spent the season building enough character for the big comeback at the end.