MIDDLETOWN, NJ — The state tournament allows for players to etch their name into the history book; a chance to cement their notion of a “clutch” player.
Very rarely is that spotlight stolen by a freshman.
On Monday night, that is exactly what happened as rookie forward Nate Block scored the game winning goal fo Middletown South as the fourth-seeded Eagles soared to a 3-1 victory over fifth-seeded Point Pleasant Borough/Manchester Township in the NJSIAA Public B quarterfinals at Middletown Ice World.
The Eagles will now entertain top-seeded Randolph in the NJSIAA Tournament which continues on Wednesday at 4:30 p.m. at Codey Arena in West Orange.
Block sniped home that game winner with just 1:54 remaining in the third period to propel his squad into the semifinals. For Block, his 12th goal of the season now puts him in a three-way tie for the team lead with senior teammates Marc Connor and Michael Hannigan.
“Holy crap!” Block said of his reaction to the game-winning goal. “I have no idea how it even happened. It was amazing, the crowd and the boys were into it and it kept the boys fired up.”
Young guys stepping up in critical moments is nothing of a surprise to Middletown South head coach Tony Nemati, whose team won the Shore Conference Class A North Public Championship this season with two sophomores and six freshman finding the lineup, along with another six juniors.
“Nate is a freshman by birth year, but he is way ahead of where we could have seen him being in terms of his development,” Nemati said of Monday night’s hero. “He is just as good as any junior or senior in the state right now and he is going to be scary good in the future.”
Block’s goal, which was the icing on the cake for a third period that was dominated by Middletown South, brought an abrupt halt to Point Pleasant Boro’s magical season. The Panthers story all season has been their lack of numbers and Monday that low count finally caught up to them.
“Our message after the first ice cut was to keep grinding them down,” Nemati said. “I could start seeing at the end of the game that they were getting a little fatigued. Both teams were playing hard, and both mentally and physically you start to wear down.
“Point Boro battled their tails off and they deserve all the credit they deserve for their season,” Nemati said. “They don’t have a lot of guys, but the guys they do have can really play.”
Out of the gate, each team was playing hard, physical, playoff hockey, but the Eagles’ game plan was to slowly wear down Point Boro. The plan took some time to come to execution, but eventually came to fruition with Middletown South firing the final six shots of the period while limiting Point Boro to just three.
Point Pleasant Boro (17-5-1) was advantageous of their first-intermission ice cut, and brought their fresh legs out for the second period. Tyler Griffen sent a shot from the blue line on goal that skimmed the top of the head of South goalie Sean Caswell just enough to be redirected into the crossbar, while Brett Nelson fanned on a shot tucked away at the far post after a cross-pass from one of his linemates on another scoring chance that came close.
The missed opportunities would haunt the Panthers, falling into a hole when Demitri Forand slapped home his 11th of the season to open the scoring 4:47 into the middle frame.
Boro was able to tie the game before hitting the second intermission when Aidan Zielaznicki tipped home his team-leading 29th of the season into the net on a shot from Eddie Coyne from the top of the zone. But that was all Point Boro would muster in the offensive zone.
Middletown South (13-8-2) went back to the plan that worked so well limiting the opposition to three shots over the first 15 minutes.
The Eagles controlled the third period, and finally were able to beat Point Boro goalie John Meyer again in the final two minutes. Meyer made 25 saves on the night to close out a remarkable career that saw him finish his senior season with a .943 save percentage.
Middletown South dug in defensively, limiting Point Boro to two shots in the final frame — one less than they allowed in the first.
“The defense did a great job and so did the forwards taking away the middle of the ice,” Block said. “They made sure that the other team didn’t get any empty nets or any back door tap ins.”
Sean Asaro capped the scoring with an empty-netter in the final minute. Michael Ferlanti and Joe Ciervo each contributed a pair of assists apiece for Middletown South, which will now set its sights on the Rams, eight-time NJSIAA champions in search of its first state title since 2015.
“It was a complete team effort tonight,” Block said. “Nobody went off by themselves. We were able to compete and keep up the energy.”
Monday’s result was the same as when these teams met up back on Dec. 11, with Middletown South escaping with a 3-1 victory at home. This time, the stakes were more than just bragging rights.
Somebody was going to hang up their jersey for the final time this season — and for some the final time in their careers.
“It is so difficult to beat the same team twice the same year,” Nemati said. “They know what you have and vice versa, but the playoffs are like a whole new season. The intensity rises and the attention to detail is much greater. Guys play with a sense of urgency knowing if they can’t get it done that they might never play high school hockey again.”
Nate Block comes through clutch scoring the game winner with two minutes to play. Middletown South defeats Point Boro 3-1 with a late empty netter. @Hockey_Clan @ShoreConfHockey @MHSSHockey #PBvsMTS #NJHockey pic.twitter.com/y4aUWJt8Fz
Written by Casey J. Krish / @CaseyKrish
Special to HockeyClan
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