MENNEN ARENA — Hunterdon Central has broken many barriers to get this far. Maybe it has enough strength to break down one more.
The third-seeded Red Devils erased a one-goal deficit with three unanswered to take a lead deep into the third period before staving off a relentless attack from the sixth-seeded Knights of Wayne en route to a 3-2 triumph in the semifinals of the NJSIAA Public A Tournament at Mennen Arena in Morris Township.
After Eric Kruglyak gave Wayne a 1-0 lead 6:23 into the second period, Alex Ahern, Scott Schnell and Will Chanlam scored in succession to give Hunterdon Central a 3-1 lead. The Knights’ crusade never stopped, however, and Wayne cut the deficit to one when Dean Hulbert scored to make it a one-goal game with their goalie pulled in favor of an extra attacker and 1:53 remaining in regulation leaving the crowd, players and coaches on pins and needles as the finals seconds ticked away.
“They were desperate — and when you’re desperate you play your best hockey,” Hunterdon Central senior Scott Schnell said. “They were all over us, got the second one but we were able to get away thanks to Noah Dominick who played fantastic the last few seconds. It’s awesome!”
Dominick made 14 saves including a couple of dandies in the waning moments to ensure Hunterdon Central would head to the state finals at “The Rock” for the first time in school history. The Flemington school is set to take on Woodbridge Township on March 5 at Prudential Center in Newark.
“This team and I, we’ve been breaking down barriers,” Schnell said. “Last year, we won Skyland Conference Cup for the first time. This year we’re going all the way now. We take so much pride in breaking barriers and we are ready to get it done.”
Dominick appeared to cover the puck, but Kruglyak was there to dig it loose and chip it past Wayne goalie Luke Horbatuk (20 saves) to give the Knights a 1-0 lead at 8:37 of the second period. Anthony Mazzerina drew an assist on the goal that sent a wave of momentum Wayne’s way.
“We were a little taken back,” Schnell said. “Obviously we were hoping to get the first goal. We’re a lot better team with a lead but we were able to regroup pretty quick, realized we were rushing ourselves too much and making too many turnovers in the gray zones. But as soon as we got the first one, then the second one, we knew it was going to be a really good game.”
Ahern struck back and tied the game at 1-1 just 1:10 after Kruglyak’s goal before Schnell put Hunterdon Central ahead for the first time 1:14 into the third.
With the way the game was going, Chanlam knew it wasn’t enough and the team needed to continue to press the attack.
“After we got the lead, I was like, ‘Oh man, we got to score another one. We need an insurance goal,'” Chanlam said. “I saw a 3-on-1 rush, went into the slot, Richie (Stefanik) made a nice pass and I just tipped it in.”
Chanlam’s goal, with 11:32 remaining in regulation, proved decisive.
“There’s 7:34 left in the game,” Wayne coach Joe Belger said. “Last night, Woodbridge was here and scored two goals in the third period in 38 seconds. We have an eternity.”
Despite what seemed like a wealth of sand in the hourglass, Dominick proved up to task time and again before Belger pulled Horbatuk looking for the equalizer. The ploy worked as Hulbert capitalized on the 6-on-5 to cut it to 3-2 but that would be the last time the Red Devils’ goalie would allow a puck behind him.
“I’m having a heart-attack. I don’t know right now,” a relieved Paul Cavanaugh, head coach for the Red Devils, said. “I have a few more grey hairs now I think. We were very nervous, now we’re excited. It’s a testament to how we’ve been playing the last couple of months. We’ve really come together a team.”
Hunterdon Central improves to 15-7-3 and sets its sights on its first NJSIAA title.
Wayne, a first-year co-op following the merger of Wayne Hills and Wayne Valley, sees its seven-game winning streak come to a halt at 18-7-3. It was a tremendously successful campaign for the Knights, which captured the Passaic County Cup as well as the Big North Silver Cup this season.
“We work on special teams the last two minutes of games in practice and the guys came through for us in the end,” Cavanaugh said. “It’s been a long time coming. We’ve been through a lot of very difficult losses the past five years. This year, we were happy to get past the second round for once, but our end goal was always Prudential Center — we got there, now we have to finish it off.”
“I’m only a sophomore, but I know for the juniors and seniors this is huge,” Chanlam said. “I’ve only been playing for two years but this is big for them. It’s like a one-in-a-lifetime opportunity.”
Written by John Christian Hageny / @JCCSPORTS
Special to HockeyClan
Main Image: Wayne players calapse around Hunterdon Central goalie Noah Dominick in the final seconds of the NJSIAA Public A semifinals at Mennen Arena in Morris Township in March 1, 2018. Hunterdon Central defeated Wayme, 3-2. (Tom Smith/TSPImages)
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