WEST ORANGE, NJ — It certainly looked like West Essex and Oratory Prep were about to conclude 45 minutes of spirited hockey in a tie on Monday at Codey Arena in West Orange.
Connor Hapward had a different finish in mind.
The junior defenseman joined the rush and connected on a pass from Connor McCarthy to register the game-winning goal with just 34 seconds on the clock to stun Oratory and help West Essex forge a 4-3 victory in a wild finish between the two NJIIHL Kelly Division foes.
It was the fourth goal this season for Hapward and extended the unbeaten streak to six games for West Essex (5-0-1), which improved to 8-3-3 overall. The Essex County school has not lost since a 2-1 setback against West Milford on Dec. 19.
“I saw the play developing and I decided to shoot the gap,” said Hapward, who also has 13 assists this season. “We have struggled in the past with winning these tight games, so I was definitely looking for a goal there. I was not happy about them tying the game. We’ve struggled in the past with winning these tight games and I really wanted to get the win today. I’m glad we were able to do that.”
Indeed, Oratory (10-4-1) rallied for two goals with less than eight minutes to play to erase a 3-1 deficit in a game that was mostly controlled by its opponent.
John Spitznagel redirected a shot from the point with 7:03 left in the third for a power play goal – with just two seconds to spare with the man-advantage – to slice the score to 3-2.
Then John Meehan dashed up ice before feeding Jefferey Jarvis, and the junior forward fired in his 16th goal of the season with just 49 seconds left to square it at 3-3.
Oratory coach Sam Tafel called a timeout at that point to set up his club’s final push, but West Essex coach Marc Gregory had the same plan in mind.
“I said at the timeout enough with the ties,” said Gregory, whose club was edged, 2-1, by Oratory on Dec. 16. “That would have been our fourth tie in the league and I said we need to try and get a win here. To come out like that it shows we are a gritty bunch.
“Hapward’s been playing super and it was great vision by him to see the lane and a great play by McCarthy to get him the puck. It was a picture-perfect play. We wanted everyone to know that we are here. The down side is we gave up a two-goal lead in the third but I give our guys a lot of credit for not backing down. Oratory is pretty good. They play a good, structured game. I’m happy for my guys. They did a great job.”
The comeback in the end was thwarted for Oratory, which saw its seven-game unbeaten streak (6-0-1) stopped. The Union County school hadn’t suffered a defeat since it dropped a 7-2 decision to Millburn on Dec. 22.
“We did a good job bearing down,” said Oratory first-year coach Sam Tafel. “We put ourselves in a hole but I’m proud of the way our guys were able to battle back. When you play a solid team like West Essex that plays a good system, if you don’t come to play from the opening puck drop it’s tough. West Essex took it to us for most of the game and they deserved to be on top.”
Oratory wanted to establish its down low presence in the offensive zone, but West Essex was able to counter and delivered a shot-metric clinic, firing a barrage of attempts at every angle it could at goalie Greg Lahr.
“We wanted to get the puck deep and sustain pressure on them,” Gregory said. “We do generate a lot of shots but sometimes our finishing could be better. But we finished pretty well today. The statistics do bear out that the more attempts you take the better your chances to outscore the other team.”
Alex Laglia opened the scoring for West Essex with a goal 2:42 into the first for a 1-0 lead.
Oratory countered on Meehan’s power play tally with 6:20 left in the first to square it at 1-1. Oratory finished the contest connecting on both of its power play opportunities.
Connor Barnette struck for a power play goal with 6:27 left in the second period on assists from Laglia and Peter Andolino to put West Essex back on top at 2-1.
West Essex extended its lead to 3-1 after Nick Trabb shoveled in a pass from Gilroy Prial for an even strength goal 2:40 into the third.
Both goaltenders were on their game at both ends of the ice and came up with some impressive saves. Jason Albrecht finished with 19 saves for West Essex while Lahr stopped 43 shots for Oratory.
“I think we wore them down a little and had a bit more stamina in the end,” said Barnette. “It was important to just keep pouring shots at them from everywhere and some would go in. Luckily, it came with the last 34 seconds left where Hapward buried that fourth one. That was really big and I think that was all due to putting every shot at the net we could.
“It’s a motivation boost and shows that we can do it. It puts our pride to the test and I think with this group we can definitely do it.”
Connor Hapward hits for Wessex just 15 seconds later & it’s over as @WestEssexHS takes 4-3 win over @ORATORYPREP @Hockey_Clan @HockeyAdvantage @SeanReillyHS @JCCSPORTS @ChrisOrlandoHS #OPvsWE pic.twitter.com/0qZPKnRAtf
— Paul Bruno (@PaulBrunoHS) January 14, 2019
Written by Paul Bruno / @PaulBrunoHS
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