WEST ORANGE, NJ — At-large and in charge.
The Chatham Cougars — one game under .500 at the cutoff for the NJSIAA Tournament — are heading back to the state finals.
Matt Keane’s unassisted goal, 2:34 into sudden-death overtime, ensured an improbable return trip to “The Rock” became reality for Chatham as the sixth-seeded Cougars survived with a 2-1 victory over seventh-seeded Northern Highlands in the NJSIAA Public C state semifinals at Codey Arena in West Orange.
Nate Marshall broke the ice 6:24 into the second period giving Chatham a 1-0 lead, but Mark Cinotti tied it with 5:29 remaining in regulation to force overtime. After a 15-minute ice cut wiped the slate clean, Keane wasted no time winning it in sudden-death fashion for Chatham, sending the Cougars back to Prudential Center looking for redemption.
Chatham, 10-11-2 when the state cutoff hit Feb. 4, has rebounded with four wins in its last five, including tournament victories over Millburn and Lakeland in the second round and quarterfinals, respectively, are believed to be the first-ever team to receive an at-large bid and reach as state final.
On Monday, March 4 at Prudential Center, they’ll be looking to be the first-ever to win one.
“I don’t even remember the play, I just remember the puck came up the wall. I had someone to the left of me. I was thinking about passing but I decided to rip it instead and got lucky enough to see it go in the back of the net,” Keane said of just his fifth goal this season. ”
“Obviously giving up a goal with 5:29 left in the third didn’t deflate us. We weren’t feeling great after that, but we came back to the bench and said, ‘You know what? We got this. We’ve done this before — We’ve been here before.‘ We just stayed focused and right from the start in overtime we were able to bury it.”
Chatham, 9-1-1 in its last 11 games, improves to 14-11-2. It will take on fourth-seeded Summit in a rematch of the 2018 Public C championship. The Morris County program is eyeing its third state title in school history after winning it all in 2011 and 2013.
“Both teams worked hard to be here,” Chatham coach Brendon Herr said. “I think the ice cut was the best thing for us. Overtime… we had to come back in (the locker room), refocus a little bit, get rested. Our message coming out was, ‘Next ones ours.‘”
“Going into the locker room, no one was jumping around off the walls. We sat down and focused on our game ready to go,” Keane said. “We wanted to win it in overtime because we wanted to get back to “The Rock.”
It was a heartbreaking finish for Northern Highlands, which captured its first state title in school history last season. After stunning second-seeded Madison in overtime in the quarterfinals on Monday, the Allendale school had to feel good about its chances in the extra session.
“Not easily, I sure wish there wasn’t an ice cut because I thought the third period was our best period and we had all the momentum,” Northern Highlands’ coach Jason Beswick said. “I felt really good going into overtime, but one unlucky bounce and they took advantage of it. Full credit to them, they’re a great team. It was a great game and I wish them all the best.
“Cinotti made a great individual effort to get the game tied. At that point, I felt really, really good about winning it there, potentially, in the third,” Beswick said. “But their defense stood strong the rest of the way. Puck bounce and we come up with the short end of the stick. That’s sports.”
Northern Highlands also validated itself with an at-large bid. The Bergen County school had won three of its last four and hadn’t even surrendered a goal coming in the post-season coming into Thursday night’s semifinal.
“Third period I thought we dominated them,” Northern Highlands senior defenseman Sean Vlasich, fifth all-time in scoring on the team, said. “We got that nice goal by Mark Cinotti, I thought we were going to keep the momentum from it. It’s just an unlucky bounce. Whaddya gonna do? What can you do? It happens. We played hard all game, (John) Werber played unreal all game. Everyone battled their hearts out.
“With all the players we lost from last year’s championship team — Jin Lee, Joe Konvit, Henry Riccitelli — a bunch of key players from our state run, moving into a harder division in Public C, we had a very tough regular season,” Vlasich said. “But we got the at-large bid and were still able to battle back and end the season strong. I think the boys surprised me. The played the hardest I’ve ever seen. Very proud of this team.”
The line of Keane, Nate Marshall and Jack Deletto has hit its stride for the Cougars, providing Chatham a 1-0 lead 6:24 into the second.
“I was glad it went in. In a game like this you need to take every chance you get,” said Marshall, whose bank shot from behind the goal line lit the spark. “I was trying to throw pucks on net. You never know when it’s going to go in.
“It feels great,” Marshall said. “As I said before, we don’t feel like we should’ve been an at-large team. A lot of our games throughout the beginning of the season were close games. It’s a testament to the fact we play in a really hard division — Morristown-Beard, Randolph, Morris Knolls, Madison… Ever since getting our team back, getting our leaders all of us have jelled together and we’ve become really close.”
The key has been the return of Zachary Pendergrast in between the pipes. Since his return to the team on Jan. 21, Chatham has won seven-of-nine. The senior goalie finished with 22 saves. John Werber matched that effort with 22 saves of his own for Northern Highlands.
Chatham’s 24th shot of the game won it.
“We’ve got to keep working hard,” Keane said. “Obviously, we’re 9-1-1 in our last 11 now. We know Summit. They’re a great team. We have a history with them after losing to them in the state final last year, so we’ll definitely be ready for that game — for sure.”
“I’m ready,” Marshall said. “We had a rough game against them earlier this year but I think we’re all ready for it. Mentally, we’re going to get ourselves prepared to face them again.”
— Paul Bruno (@PaulBrunoHS) March 1, 2019
Written by John Christian Hageny / @JCCSPORTS
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