NEWARK, NJ — Alex Konovalov of Ridge was always lurking on the ice, waiting to strike at any offensive opportunity that emerged.
It came at the 4:59 mark of the third period when the skilled senior forward darted onto a loose puck in the low left slot before ripping a rising shot far-side to snap a 1-1 tie and linemate Luke Rich then added a pair of goals to put the game away as second-seeded Ridge defeated top-seeded Randolph, 4-1, on Monday in the NJSIAA Public B championship at Prudential Center in Newark.
Konovalov also finished with two assists, Blake Loges scored once, and Marcus Fabiunke was fabulous in net in stopping 25 of the 26 shots he faced for Ridge (19-7-3).
The state title is the third overall for Ridge, which had lost to Randolph (1-0) in the only other time the two met in the championship – the 2009 Public A title game. The last time the two met in the state tournament, Ridge posted a 4-2 victory in the Public A semifinal round in 2017. Ridge’s previous two state titles had come against Watchung Hills (2008 & 2017).
It marked the second straight season Randolph has bowed in the state final. Last season the Rams were edged, 1-0, by Northern Highlands. Randolph, which was seeking its ninth Public state crown, finishes at 21-5-2.
“Between the second and third periods my heart dropped,” said Konovalov, who came back in mid-January after suffering a fractured fibula in practice just before the season opened. “Playing in this atmosphere, in this building against a team like Randolph, it’s nerve-wracking. I thought our Westfield game in the semifinal (2-1 overtime victory) was the most nerve-wracking game I’ve ever been in, but I think this one out-did that. Randolph played an outstanding game.
“I had a guy on me every time I was on the ice, but I play with some great teammates. I was able to find some open space on that second goal. As a senior to play my last game at the Rock and win a championship is something. It’s a great feeling to come out on top today. But I wouldn’t be here today without a bunch of great teammates, and my line-mates Luke Rich and Blake Loges.”
Indeed, the Red Devils’ top trio surely bedeviled Randolph in the match. Konovalov, Rich and Loges accounted for every goal and six points (4-2).
Konovalov fueled the offense after his return for Ridge, finishing with 44 points on 28 goals and 16 assists.
“That kid (Konovalov) can get a break and he’s gone,” said Randolph coach Rich McLaughlin, now 437-185-64 in his career. “We knew he was out there all the time. He’s a very good player and he’s scored against everybody. If he gets a break he’ll score. We did get that first goal and it was kind of like we piqued there. We didn’t play a complete game and Ridge was tough. They were better than us for the last 40 minutes of the game.
“We let up five two-on-ones against us in the first period and that is not like us. We got that early lead and kind of fell apart a little. We got some chances, but their goalie played well, too. We were chasing the game after the first period. In the end I guess we just didn’t have it today and Ridge was good.”
Randolph put 26 shots on goal against Fabiunke, but McLaughlin felt one factor his club just couldn’t muster was the key second chances.
“Their goalie made the saves when he had to,” McLaughlin noted. “We just couldn’t find any rebounds, and if we don’t get rebounds, we’re not scoring too many goals. Ridge made it tough to get to the net.”
Randolph got its lone power play of the game with 4:28 left and trailing 3-1. It was the last gasp for the Rams to swing the momentum, but they were unable to get a goal. Randolph goalie Gavin Einfeldt, also very strong in net with 17 saves, was pulled for the extra-attacker with 1:40 left, but Rich finished it off with his second of the game (11th on the season) with an empty net tally with 28 seconds left on the game clock.
Rich, a senior forward, followed Konovalov’s go-ahead goal with a huge tally for Ridge when he jammed the net and swept home a rebound with 6:18 left in regulation for a 3-1 lead.
“From top to bottom the guys worked absolutely unreal today,” said Rich, who closed with 11 goals this season. “We got pucks deep and got some good shots on net, and we buried a few in the third. Before the third period coach Mullin came into the locker room and told us to stick with what we’re doing. We’ve gotten this far, so just a little more. And Marcus Fabiunke has been absolutely outstanding for us this year. He’s been a big key to our success.”
The junior goalie was superb throughout and denied Randolph sniper J.T. Zangara twice in-close during the second period to preserve the 1-1 tie.
“We did it,” said Fabiunke, who posted 12 shutouts this season. “It was teamwork and getting pucks out when we needed. And getting goals when we needed. It’s a great feeling. My team supported me the whole way.”
The first period had several chances for both teams, as Ridge tried to deploy its swift top line and Randolph attempted to counter that with an aggressive 1-2-2 forecheck.
Randolph struck first as Zangara continued his productive season when he darted unchecked down the slot and whipped the puck into a wide-open net 3:25 after the opening draw for a 1-0 lead.
Ridge countered with some solid scoring opportunities but Randolph defensemen Austin Cross and Michael Sofia each went down to block point-blanks shots. The Red Devils were able to counter effectively from the blue line in and it was Loges who converted a gorgeous cross-slot feed from Konovalov with 2:20 left in the first to square it at 1-1.
The tightly contested first period ended with Randolph holding a slim 7-6 advantage in shots. Although Einfeldt and Fabiunke did not face a bunch of shots in the opening period, both saw some high-quality chances.
The second period was scoreless as Fabiunke and Einfeldt each turned in some sparkling saves on a combined 19 shots.
“The first goal was huge,” said Loges of his tying goal in the first period. “We kept saying on the bench not to get away from our game because we’d gotten this far playing that way. I was able to get to the front of the net and Alex made an unbelievable pass. I think that first goal was a big momentum-turner. Our three captains are on the top line and as seniors we knew we had to leave it all on the ice in our last game, and credit to Randolph because they are an awesome team.”
“Alex has a never -quit mentality and he will just go until he finds space. He is one of the leaders on this team and knows how to play for a full 45 minutes. We knew that Randolph would be buzzing for this game and it was a real team win. This is just awesome. It’s my second championship in three years. I’m really proud of our whole team.”
The title was the third for Ridge coach Tim Mullin, who moved to within 10 victories of the 400-win ledger.
“This feels really good,” said Mullin, now 390-144-76 in 23 seasons. “I mean, you look at Randolph and their history and it seems they are almost impossible to beat in a championship game. They are always so good. I’m really glad for our players because they worked so hard and they’re a great group.
“And you look at Alex Konovalov. The great players always rise in the big spot and he did today. He is so talented but he’s such a great kid. He’s gotten so many big goals for us over the last four years, it wasn’t surprising he got the big one today.”
Written by Paul Bruno / @PaulBrunoHS
Special to HockeyClan
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