FITCHBURG — Just as advertised, the season opener between Fitchburg/Monty Tech and Lunenburg/Ayer Shirley came right down to the wire.
And as he has multiple times in the past, Lunenburg’s Nathan Handy came through at the end, as his goal 82 seconds from the final buzzer gave the Blue Knights a 2-2 draw against the Red Raiders at the Wallace Civic Center Wednesday afternoon.
Handy’s shot from the slot found a seam in the Red Raider defense and squeezed over the shoulder of goalie Spencer McGrillis, who had an outstanding day after giving up the initial goal just shy of four minutes into the season.
Krystian Carter and Shea Arsenault came up with the game-tying assists for the defending Central Mass. Division 3A champions.
Lunenburg coach Eric Short had pulled goalie Ian Keene at the 1:35 mark in favor of an extra skater. Arsenault had a shot from the dasher deflected off McGrillis’ stick, with the rebound coming to Handy in the slot.
“We had to get pucks on net and get good rebounds,” Short said. “They played it kind of perfectly at the end. They were being aggressive in the last six, seven, eight minutes, much better.”
McGrillis had valiantly stood on his head and gave a yeoman’s performance for the Red and Gray, making 27 saves in what had looked like a winning effort.
Fitchburg coach Steve Lowney was proud of his netminder.
“That second half, he really rose to the occasion, no question,” Lowney said. “He was making that one-goal lead look like it was going to stick.
“We struggled to get the puck out of the zone in the second half where we didn’t struggle in the first as much. We gave them too many second and third-chance opportunities to keep the puck in. That was the difference.”Lunenburg had taken a 1-0 lead nearly four minutes into the season, as Nicholas Fortier had popped in the rebound from the side of the slot.
“We had to shake the rust off in the first half,” Short said. “We were getting out-shot; the second half was better.”
The lead lasted just shy of four minutes, before Max Beaulac wristed home a stride in from the blue line. Riley LeBlanc found Beaulac for the goal.
Eight and a half minutes later, Fitchburg/Monty Tech took the lead.
Lucas Wiebe was on his knees behind the net and found Jacob Pruneau 10 feet away in the slot. He buried the pass, putting Fitchburg ahead, 2-1.
Fitchburg had a 19-12 lead in shots through the first 22:30, with high school hockey playing two halves instead of three periods.
But in the second half, Lunenburg’s puck control and repeated shooting — 17-7 — turned the game on its ear and saw the Knights come so close on numerous occasions to tie the game.
“I was happy with the way we performed in the first half, and we took the edge in play, but (Lunenburg) flipped the script entirely,” Lowney said.