LAWRENCEVILLE — Firing on all cylinders. A well-oiled machine. For undefeated Pope John, have your pick of which cliche best describes its best start in school history.
Nikita Volobuyev, John Spetz and Eric Vanderhoff each scored twice while team captain Artem Buzoverya picked up five assists as Pope John, No. 2 in the New Jersey Hockey Private Top 10, kept its undefeated record intact with a 9-1 triumph over on-the-bubble Notre Dame at Loucks Ice Center in Lawrenceville.
Volobuyev opened the scoring just 49 seconds into the game and the Sparta school never stopped skating, getting goals from Ryan Stevens, Connor Daly and Chris Walako as well as 19 saves from Matt Schoer in net to improve to 13-0-3 this season.
Despite the impressive performance, coach Ryan Brown says it’s not so simple.
“This team right now, these kids, they’re not the most talented but they’re the hardest-working,” Brown said. “They bought into our system right away and play within it.”
“The biggest difference is these kids work hard every day whether we have a game or not. They realize they’re not talented to the point they can just show up to play. They know they need to come to work.”
Establishing a four-goal lead after one period of play, Notre Dame settled in and kept it that way until a five-minute penalty for boarding opened up the floodgates in the final stages of the second period. Blessed with the man-advantage, Pope John put on a clinic with three power-play goals over the final 1:02 of the period to build a 7-0 lead after two.
Stevens and Volobuyev scored 10 seconds apart and Daly lit the lamp again with 17.9 left in the three-goal flurry.
“Coming into the season, nobody expected it but we’re proving everybody wrong,” Volobuyev said. “We’re just playing as a team — always.
“We’re undefeated so everybody is so pumped up for the games. We went out hard. We’re not the most skillful team but we’re working hard and listening to our coaches.”
Clearly a team not content resting on its laurels, Pope John went back to work in the third period when Vanderhoff notched his second goal of the game just 47 seconds in to make it 8-0. Walako made it a 9-0 game 38 seconds later before Notre Dame (9-10-2) finally broke through with 7:37 remaining in regulation when Sean Whittaker finished what Jason Janora and Matt Sellers started.
“We’ve got to start taking away time and space from their guys,” Notre Dame junior Ben Killian said. “We really need to pick it up in the defensive zone and we have to put everything that’s already happened behind us and bear down and play our game. We need to put all that aside, mentally, and go out and play our game.“
Pope John is one of just two undefeated teams remaining in the state. It tied fellow unbeaten and No. 1 Delbarton (15-0-1), 4-4, on January 17 at Aspen Ice in Randolph.
Already its best start in school history, with each passing victory put up in the win column, Pope John’s memorable 2005-06 season is being brought back into the limelight. The Sparta school went 13-6-4 that season, advancing all the way to the NJSIAA Non-Public semifinals before finally being eliminated.
“I don’t think it was as hot of a start (as this year’s team) but that year, yeah, we had a real strong team with five D and two good goaltenders,” Brown recalled. “We split with Delbarton, split with Seton Hall Prep with Pete Herms coaching during the regular season, before making it all the way to the state semis where we fell to Delbarton, 3-2, on a goal with 30 seconds left. We had a real good team that year — a different year than this year — but both very good teams.”
“With the start we’ve had, a lot of people have been talking about that ‘05-06 season,” Volobuyev, who picked up a goal and assist in the contest, added. “We’re rolling two, sometimes three lines.”
“We do have some high-end guys — we have that ability,” Brown added. “John Spetz is a great player. He just signed his Letter of Intent to Merrimack. Artem, Nikita, Eric Vanderhoff have each had great years and we’ve got some pretty big goaltending from Matty.
“Enough to put pucks home given the opportunities but overall as a group the kids work very hard. We’ve been able to hang in against a team like Delbarton and bury chances. We have the talent, but at the same time we’re a hard-working group.”
Past successes firmly in the rear view mirror, Pope John is only focused on the future. The best, perhaps, has yet to be written for Sussex County Prep School in 2016-17.
John Christian Hageny
Lead Writer — HockeyClan
Buffalo Sabres Team Writer — The Hockey Writers