WEST ORANGE — After a lackluster performance in the team’s previous game, Millburn coach Brandon Doria demoted Andy Fresen down to the fourth unit. The sophomore could have taken it hard and sulked away on the bench, but instead, came back stronger looking to prove his coach wrong.
Deadlocked in a scoreless tie after two periods of play and Millburn looking for a spark, offensively, Doria decided to give Fresen another shot.
“Before the third period I said to him, ‘Show me I made a mistake. Show me you should be playing with this line,’” Doria said. “Next shift he went out and scored.”
Fresen’s timely goal, assisted by Jack Williams and Ryan Rosenberg just 1:27 into the third period, proved crucial and senior goaltender Gabe Nadell, blessed with a lead, made sure it stood with 31 saves and a shutout as top-seeded Millburn outlasted fourth-seeded Cranford, 1-0, in the semifinals of the Kelly Cup at Codey Arena in West Orange.
“It was a really great goal, one of the best I’ve ever scored,” Fresen said. “Fifteen seconds into the shift, Jack gives me a perfect behind the back pass from the corner and I shot five-hole, low, just past the goalie.
“I got benched earlier in the game, but in the third, coach told me to go out there and prove he was wrong,” Fresen said. “I didn’t think it would stand. Luckily we had Gabe.”
In the midst of Millburn’s most successful season in school history, Doria was thrilled the way his underclassmen responded to adversity.
“He showed me,” Doria said with a laugh, “and it’s the best feeling in the world as coach — when you make a move that’s not right, you give that kid another opportunity to come back and deliver — and not only delivers… but delivers in a big way.”
Cranford (11-10-2) threw everything including the kitchen sink at Nadell, outshooting Millburn 31-28, but could not solve the goaltender who stood tall to record his ninth shutout of the season.
“We played really well, outplayed them for most of the game,” Cranford coach Rich Hurley said. “Their goalie is outstanding and we just didn’t capitalize on the three or four opportunities we had. We just couldn’t bang one in. If you don’t take advantage of those opportunities against a good goalie, you’re in for a tough night and that’s what happened.”
“We came out hard, tried to get people in front, but their goalie stopped everything,” Cranford’s Dan Allen said. “He was unbelievable. We tried to pack the net, but hats off to him — he played great.”
Fresen was skating on a line with Jack Williams and Ethan Ostroff up until this game. In the third, Doria reunited the all-sophomore line and less than two minutes in, was rewarded for it as Millburn improves to 16-5-3. It awaits the winner of 2-Governor Livingston/New Providence and 3-Johnson in the Kelly Cup finals set for February 18 at Codey Arena.
“Our offense has taken a little step back so I tried to switch things up and put him back out there,” Doria said. “I’m confident in Fresen.”
In the end, the night belonged to Nadell.
“I just tried to stay focused on the next shot. You take a shift off, they can make you pay for it,” Nadell said. “That’s what you tell the guys, ‘You can’t think too much ahead, you can’t too ahead of yourselves because you have to stay focused on the next play.’
“Playing with a lead my mindset doesn’t change,” Nadell added. “Obviously, it’s good to have a lead, but for me personally, it’s focus on the next shot every time.”
“This win was huge. We weren’t ready to go home yet. We want to win the cup and we expect to do that. As long as we play our game, we’ll be ready.”
“We just have to keep working hard, playing our type of hockey,” Fresen added. “It was a close game. Playoff hockey. It feels great to win. Can’t wait for Saturday.”
Cranford will also file this one away as it prepares itself for the NJSIAA tournament.
“It was a great game before the state tournament, it shows we can play with a top-10 team and showed it,” added Allen. “We just have to play our game and make the right passes.”
John Christian Hageny
Lead Writer — Hockey Clan
Buffalo Sabres Team Writer — The Hockey Writers