WALL TOWNSHIP, NJ — With more NJSIAA titles than any program in state history, the 13-time and defending state champion Delbarton Green Wave remain the team to beat.
But if the first two-and-a-half months are any indication of how it will all play out this season, on a night when Don Bosco Prep clinched the division title, it is clear the fight for the right to call themselves champion will be a gritty battle to the bitter end.
After battling to a 2-2 tie their first meeting of the season, Delbarton and Christian Brothers Academy came into a rematch with some unfinished business to attend to and Max Williams provided it, snapping a one-all tie with 7:42 remaining in regulation before Michael Balzarotti iced it, scoring his second goal of the game into an empty net with 54.6 left as the Green Wave, No. 2 in The Hockey Night in Boston Top 20, skated to a 3-1 decision over No. 3 CBA Wednesday night at Jersey Shore Arena in Wall Township.
In a game of inches, knowing the right time to pick your spot, the right time to step up into the play to keep it alive can be the difference between winning and losing. Deadlocked at one in the late stages of the third period in a raucous environment on the road, Delbarton saw its opportunity.
“A great pinch by J.P. Nolan to keep the play alive got the puck down to low to Michael Balzarotti who hit me on the dot with the puck and I just finished it,” Williams said of his game-winner. “It’s an awesome win, an especially tough one with the crowd rocking for the other team so it feels great to come away with a win here.”
“We were disappointed the last time we played them, up 2-0 then they came back to tie it so this one feels great,” Balzarotti, who broke a scoreless tie 7:27 into the second after a fierce, hard-hitting scoreless first frame, said. “This barn here, it’s always tough to get a win here so we definitely wanted to get the first goal and take their crowd out of it. Once we were there, we rode it all the way through, Max was able to keep it going in the third and it stood. A great overall team effort.”
With back-to-back-to-back state titles from 2016-2018, the defending state champions improve to 12-4-3 this season, including 8-2-2 in the tough Gordon Conference. But after winning eight of their first nine games, Delbarton was just 3-3-3 entering its rematch with CBA at the cozy confines of Jersey Shore Arena where the stands put the fans right on top of the play.
“A lot of the older guys understand how tough a building this is to play in, but to be honest with you I told them it’s one of the more fun places to play with their crowd and energy,” Delbarton coach Bruce Shatel said. “It was big for us to have a decent start and play with a lead and I think our guys did a pretty good job keeping their composure.”
With time winding down on Kay Berezniak’s minor for tripping, Balzarotti took a pass from teammate Tim Royse and caught CBA off-guard, scoring shorthanded with five seconds still left on the penalty for a 1-0 lead. The advantage was short-lived, however, as Christian Brothers battled right back and tied it at 1-1 just 4:38 later when Logan Heroux scored for the Colts, assisted by Gio Crepaldi.
Following the script from their previous meeting, CBA and Delbarton employed a tight-checking, hard-hitting contest fit to be tied at one after two. If there was doubt as to who would answer the bell in the third, Balzarotti answered it as the senior captain set up Williams for the go-ahead goal 7:18 in before seizing possession of the puck and scoring again after CBA pulled its goalie in favour of an extra attacker the final minute of regulation.
“That’s why he’s our captain,” Williams said. “It was definitely huge. He won the last game for us and won this one too. He really sets the tone.”
Christian Brothers Academy (15-5-1), which won 10 straight games from Dec. 5 to Jan. 7, is just 3-4-1 since and after the game coach Ryan Bogan kept his team behind closed doors for a little heart-to-heart with the season on the line.
“Both teams played with a lot of heart, we just made a few more mental mistakes than they did,” Bogan said. “Tied at one in our barn I liked our chances. We had the momentum and had a couple more chances after that to take the lead but missed the net, then the mental errors kicked in and we’ve got to clean that up. If we don’t it’s going to be a short post-season.”
“We really need to work more on our man-on-man,” said CBA junior defenseman Matt Herrick, who nearly gave CBA a 1-0 lead in the first but his shot rang off the crossbar and out. “We gave up both our goals because we lost our man in the neutral zone, but the effort was there. 1-1 in our rink with 13 minutes left? Our hopes were high.”
CBA, which outshot Delbarton 26-21, got 18 saves from Jake Brown. Brett Cleaves made 25 stops for Delbarton.
“We’re a young team, everybody knows that, and we’re all trying our hardest. We’re working, working, working every single day, every single practice,” Herrick said. “We know we can compete with these guys and we’re expecting to see them again in the Gordon Cup and state playoffs. We’ll take it to ’em next time.”
With the win Delbarton has 18 points with one more division matchup with St. Augustine on Feb. 5. Don Bosco Prep, which defeated Delbarton, 3-1 and 3-0, currently has 20 points, but with two games remaining as well as the tiebreaker, the Ironmen clinched the Gordon Conference American Division. Still, the race remains wide open.
“It boosts our team morale a lot,” Williams said of the big road win. “I think we’re pretty confident, we’re playing well. A little rough stretch but I think we’re doing well.
“We’ve really come together as a team,” Balzarotti added. “We just got to keep working hard in practice, getting after pucks on the forecheck and stay in shape.”
Written by John Christian Hageny / @JCCSPORTS
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