FARMINGDALE, NJ — In the battle for playoff positioning every point matters.
Joe Granza scored four goals and assisted on a fifth for Jackson Liberty, but it was Ryan Bechutsky’s goal for Manalapan, assisted by Jake Caballero with 3:03 remaining in regulation, that ensured both team’s would not go home empty-handed in a 6-6 tie at Howell Ice Arena in Farmingdale.
Nick LaBianca scored twice and set up three more goals as he and Granza each led the way with five-point nights for the Lions (7-5-2), which received 34 saves from Sean Reid in between the pipes. Dylan Stein scored twice and set up Ryan Marsala for another goal for the Braves, which stand 4-7-3 in the Shore Conference Central Division. Marsala finished with a goal and two assists for Manalapan, which also got goals from Joe Mazza and Connor Freedman as well as 29 saves from freshman goaltender John Fox who settled in to turn aside 14 of 15 shots in a crucial third frame.
“We had a feeling today’s matchup was going to be a high-scoring game with all the offensive talent both teams have,” Manalapan head coach Matt Inzerillo said. “Many of my players and their players have played together. It’s one of those games you look forward to because you know they all want to outplay and outperform each other. As anticipated, the game was back and forth.”
LaBianca and Granza gave Jackson Liberty a 2-0 lead, but Manalapan regrouped and came back hard with three straight goals from Connor Freedman, Dylan Stein and Ryan Marsala to take a 3-2 advantage into the first intermission.
The Braves went back to work after the break and extended their lead to 5-2 just 2:44 into the second period as Mazza and Stein connected again, but Jackson Liberty turned the tables with three goals in a span of 9:21 to tie the game back up at 5-5 after two.
Granza scored, shorthanded, from LaBianca to make it 5-3 before the Lions found the back of the twice in the final minute to pull even. Granza completed the hat trick with 33.9 seconds left before Labianca came right back 21 seconds off the ensuing faceoff.
“The game did not go as planned,” Stein said. “Going into the game, coach told us to watch #21 (Granza), #55 (LaBianca) and #9 (Zach D’Andrea). Those three players (among the conference leaders in scoring) were the team and if we shut them down it would have been smooth sailing. However, we let them come down on several rushes and capitalized on them.”
The five-goal first and second periods would not be indicative of the third and final frame as both teams tightened up defensively.
Granza gave Jackson Liberty its second lead of the game 7:33 into the third, but the Bechutsky marker with 3:03 left ensured both teams would end in a stalemate.
It would mark back-to-back ties for each program with Jackson Liberty skating to the same result with Vernon on Jan. 11. Manalapan also tied Southern Regional, the Winding River Holiday Tournament champions, 2-2, on Friday night.
“Coming off a tie with Southern Regional, we knew this game was a do-or-die situation,” Stein said. “Going down with a tie was not the worst. It will help us in the long run (but) just like coach said, he thought this game was a loss. We had them, 5-3, going into the last minute of the second and we let them score two quick ones.”
“It was a good back and forth game,” Jackson Liberty coach Kyle Weise said. “Proud of my guys how they fought back own 5-2 at one point. A little disappointed to let it slip away at the end but I’ll take the result being a little shorthanded on the bench today. Joe Granza, Nick LaBianca, Zach D’Andrea, Nick Waldron and Brendan McCauley all played huge minutes for us. Granza was big for us with four goals and assisting on another. Sean Reid had a solid game in net.”
Inzerillo echoed his counterpart’s sentiments.
“The game was back and forth,” Inzerillo said. “Our game plan was to match their top guys, Granza and LaBianca, with our top two lines. We knew if we could match those two players in scoring we would have a great chance — and we did just that. Our boys were up to the task and returned the favor.
“We went down 2-0 but scored five goals in a row to take a 5-2 lead,” Inzerillo said. “My message to the team as to get the next goal. Get it to six and we can put them away for good. Unfortunately, Liberty fought back and scored the next four goals to take a 6-5 lead late into the third. Liberty took a timeout and we talked to our team about taking the puck wide and deep into the corner, looking to crash the net. On a rush, defenseman Jake Caballero did just that and found Ryan Bechutsky for the game-tying goal.”
After the game both Stein and Inzerillo credited the play of freshman goalie John Fox in between the pipes.
“I have to give a lot of credit to our freshman goalie, John Fox,” Stein said. “He was stopping some insane shots from that trio and stood on his head when we needed him to.
“Fox made 29 saves with three or four of them coming in the closing minutes,” Inzerillo added. “He kept us alive late in the game. I’ve always said that we have the ability to score with anyone and I think we’re starting to see that as our offense has come alive in the last five games scoring 24 goals in that stretch. If we can continue to score and play team defense, we should be able to make a nice little run.”
Tough tie, but we all stuck together as a team and managed to weather the storm,” Stein added. “Tomorrow, we have a big game against Rumson-Fair Haven and we are pumped and ready to go.”
Another Sunday, another Shore Conf Hockey game……Getting ready to start here @HowellIceWorld with @JLIBPUCK vs @Braves_Hockey_ @Hockey_Clan @HockeyAdvantage @ShoreConfHockey @NJ_Hockey @CaseyKrish @JLibAthletics @MHSBravesSports #JLvsMAN #NJHockey pic.twitter.com/Xudafueo9I
Written by John Christian Hageny / @JCCSPORTS
Special to HockeyClan
Photos: Tom Smith/TSPsportsimages.com
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