Atholton's recent game against Hammond started late because of a missing score sheet, and standout defenseman Colin Brumsted spent warmups looking for a replacement hockey helmet because he left his at home.

The game ended with a melee that resulted in game misconduct penalties for two Atholton players, but in between, things went just fine for the defending county champions, which isn't really that unusual.

With the county's top goalie in senior Lark Creel, the reigning player of the year in Brumsted and one of the area's most talented squads, Atholton rarely has trouble on ice. But non-hockey action has doomed the Raiders for two years.

Two years ago, Atholton won the regular season county title but had to forfeit its first county crown when it was discovered that several players were ineligible. The Raiders made amends last year, losing only a nonconference game to Centennial late in the season and beating River Hill for the county championship.

However, Atholton ran afoul of the officials in a 4-2 semifinal loss in Maryland Scholastic Hockey League Tier II to Southern of Anne Arundel County. Two Atholton players and a Southern coach and player were given game misconduct penalties in a contest marred by 24 infractions totaling 100 minutes and causing the game's final period to be shortened by three minutes.

"After two years ago, after having the grade problems and last year having the officials problem, this year we just hope nothing happens," said Brumsted, who scored 20 goals and had 22 assists last season.

Nothing, that is, short of the Raiders' second consecutive county title and first in the MSHL.

Atholton lost all-county standouts Khalil Rizvi and Eli Martin but returns with a younger lineup bent on winning another county title, then following up with a longer stay in the MSHL postseason.

"It does stick with us," senior winger Patrick Cavanaugh said. "That's just going to make us want to go get it even more. We should have got it last year, didn't get it then, and that's just going to motivate us even more."

Cavanaugh said that not a game goes by this season when he doesn't think about the loss to Southern.

"I had a few opportunities in that game," he said. "I hit the post four times and missed a breakaway. That was hauting me. Every chance I get this year, I am making sure I am putting it in the net because I know I am going to screw up if I don't."

Atholton has picked up where it left off against county competition, opening the season by defeating Oakland Mills, Centennial and Hammond. Cavanaugh leads the Raiders with five goals and eight assists, but this team's hallmark has been its stingy defense.

Led by Creel in net and Brumsted on defense, the Raiders have allowed a county-low five goals while outscoring their three opponents, 20-5.

"We are not a high-scoring team, at least not so far," Coach Jim Brumsted said. "As you get deeper into the county and the playoffs, defense is what is going to make or break your chances."

The Raiders (3-0) dispatched Centennial, 5-3, on Nov. 25. With one of the county's top scorers in J.L. Feeley back, the Eagles (1-2-1) seemed to be Atholton's biggest threat.

However, Howard (4-0) has emerged as a contender after a decisive win over Centennial and a comeback victory over River Hill, which has been hurt by graduation losses. The Lions were 4-6 last season but added depth in the offseason and could give the Raiders their toughest game of the year.

"The difference is you can't do it with only one line," Howard Coach Michael Rand said. "You have to have a couple lines to field a competitive team. Last year, we could skate with a lot of teams for one line, but when you get to a strong team like Atholton was last year, or River Hill, who could put two or three solid lines on, without that you can't do it."

The Lions have been more than solid this year. Last season, four Howard players had 10 or more points. Led by senior Nick Linaburg's seven goals and six assists, four have already done it this year in four games.

Sophomore Jan Gaspar has seven goals and five assists, senior Jeff Palmer has five goals and six assists and sophomore Dan Masiulis has five and five. Masiulis played last year on Mount St. Joseph's junior varsity team and has made an immediate impact on the Lions' second line, teaming with Gaspar to complement Howard's experienced first line.

Whether Howard's depth can help the Lions unseat Atholton is an altogether different story.

The Raiders and Lions meet Friday at the Gardens Ice House in Laurel in a game with distinct implications on the county playoff picture. The teams could meet again in the three-team Howard County postseason tournament that determines the county's state playoff representative.

"My big goal is to win counties this year, and I am pretty sure we will end up doing that," Colin Brumsted said. "The only team that is standing in the way is Howard, I feel."

Senior goaltender Lark Creel is one of the main reasons Atholton has a good shot at repeating as county champion. The Raiders have started with three wins.Atholton's Patrick Cavanaugh, far left, tries to keep the puck from Loudoun County's Max Coppersmith. Raider Kevin Dean, above, smacks a Loudoun County player. "As you get deeper into the county and the playoffs, defense is what is going to make or break your chances," Coach Jim Brumsted said.Colin Brumsted, who scored 20 goals last season, fires a shot on goal against Loudoun County. "My big goal is to win counties this year," he said.Kevin Dean, shooting, and Atholton lost to Southern in Maryland Scholastic Hockey League playoffs last season.