BRIDGEWATER — For this group of seniors, it was a long time coming.
Pingry goaltender Drew Brosie and fellow seniors A.J. Bernstein, Will Kazel, Greg Naratil, Matt San Miguel and Brett Zanelli had never beaten the Hunterdon Central Red Devils in their four years on the ice for Big Blue but at no point were they ever discouraged.
Brosie stood tall with 15 saves and Zanelli sparkled offensively, scoring one goal while setting up Austin Parsons for another, as Pingry defeated Hunterdon Central, 4-2, for its first victory over its Skyland Conference rival since the 2012-13 season at the Sports Arena in Bridgewater.
“It feels great. In all my four years here this is the first time we’ve ever beaten Central,” Brosie, who fended off 10 shots in the second period to keep Hunterdon scoreless, said. “It’s really big. It feels so good to be a part of this group of guys.
“This defense — Sanford Ren, Will Kazel, Austin Parsons, Jack Kepp — showed so much heart for this team today,” Brosie said. “I left it up to them to get into shot lanes, block shots, put their body in the way — it was really all them and I just did what I could to keep us in this game and give us the best chance to win.”
The triumph marked Pingry’s first victory over the large Central Jersey public school since a 5-1 win on January 16, 2013. Hunterdon Central had won each of the last six meetings between them predating everyone on the roster for both teams.
Jack Hepp scored a shorthanded goal 9:19 into the game and Dan Schnack and Brett Zanelli connected 2:14 apart over the final minutes of the opening frame as Pingry seized the initiative by establishing a 3-0 lead after one. Hepp and Parsons were effective working the perimeter at the point before finding Zanelli with just 9.2 seconds on the clock.
The back-breaking goal right before the intermission would stand as the game-winner for Pingry, which never trailed in the contest.
Hunterdon Central battled back in the second period firing 10 shots on Brosie but the big Pingry goaltender would not yield. It would not be until 8:12 of the third period when Scott Schnell finished a nice set up from Grant Martin to make it 3-1. The goal lit a fire under Hunterdon Central which came right back 3:19 later as Martin set up Jake Stapert to quickly make it a one-goal game with 4:53 remaining in regulation.
With its three-goal lead whittled down to one, Pingry coach Scott Garrow was determined not to let his team waste this opportunity.
“The early part of this season, we’ve really let games like this slip by,” Garrow said. “Games we should have won, we lost or tied.”
With its first win in four years in sight, Pingry buckled down defensively even after Hunterdon Central pulled its goalie in favour of an extra attacker in the waning moments of the spirited affair. And after a heated battle at the top of Brosie’s cage, Zanelli was able to work the puck free to Parsons who let go a rink-length shot that found an empty-net with 40.1 seconds left to ice it for Pingry.
“We held on for a really good win against a really good team,” a relieved Garrow, in his first season succeeding longtime coach John Magadini, said “Our special teams bailed us out early in the game with a couple goals on the power-play and a shorthanded goal but the guys played hard and earned this one. It wasn’t a pretty win by any means but this was a step in the right direction.”
“It was a good team effort,” Zanelli said. “We’ve never beaten them before. We’ve beat everybody else in the conference. They were the last one. It’s big to pull one out. It’s a great feeling.”
In the midst of a season-high three-game winning streak, Pingry improves to 6-4-3 and will look to make it four in a row against Montgomery tomorrow at ProSkate Arena in South Brunswick.
“We came out slow, taking three bad penalties — including myself — you can’t start out a game that way,” Hunterdon Central senior Grant Martin, who set up both of his team’s goals, said. “Clearly, 5-of-5 the second and third periods, we ran up shots and scored a couple. We were in the tracks to get the third and tie the game but we got a little shaky down low.”
Hunterdon Central coach Paul Cavauagh liked the way his Flemington team battled back nearly erasing the three-goal deficit it dug for itself.
“It was a tale of two games,” Cavanaugh said. “A bad first period, I thought we dominated the second but couldn’t score. We carried it over into the third and were just relentless. We got the one to get back into it and then another with just over five minutes left. We felt pretty good there, we just couldn’t get that third one.
“Honestly, I never blame referees. It was not the reason we lost, but when your guy gets his stick slashed right out of his hands, gets dragged down to the ice and you don’t get that call, then they score an empty-netter, I don’t understand what they’re looking at,” Cavanaugh continued. “It was not the reason we lost but it was a big part and it’s frustrating.”
Despite the setback, Hunterdon Central (7-5-3) is enjoying a resurgent season hovering atop the Skyland Conference standings.
“With the way we played in the second and third periods I’m not too worried how we’re going to play moving forward this weekend,” Martin added. “This has kind of lit a fire under us for our next game against Bernards. This will get us back on track before states.”
John Christian Hageny