SOMERSET — Ice hockey is such a fluid game. With wild swings and changes in momentum, the ability to weather the ups and downs is often the difference between winning and losing, especially come playoff time.
So when Hillsborough opened up a three-goal lead less than 10 minutes into the game, Ridge coach Tim Mullin had cause for concern. But after 25 years behind the bench, the 2008 Star-Ledger State Coach of the Year knows it takes a full 45 minutes to decide the outcome.
“Hillsborough beat us in the Christmas Tournament and it took ’em the whole game to score three goals,” Mullin said. “Ten minutes into this game they’re already up 3-0 on us, their third goal coming with our best guys on the ice I was like, ‘Holy Cow! We’re going to get killed!’ — that’s when I got nervous.
“But it just starts with one,” Mullin, who’s seen his share of comebacks, said. “One more, then another one and another one.”
Leyton Soares, Jude Kurtas and Brock Forrest staked Hillsborough to a three-goal lead 9:10 into the game, but Alex Konovalov lit the spark the caused the fire as Ridge responded with nine unanswered goals en route to a 9-3 triumph over its Skyland Conference rival at Protec Ponds in Somerset.
In his fifth game back from a lengthy injury, Konovalov put the Red Devils on the board with 3:31 left in the first, Saunder Smith cut the deficit to one with 40.1 seconds on the clock, before Ridge’s all-time leading scorer connected again just 10.1 seconds off the ensuing face-off sending the crowd into a frenzy and both teams to the locker rooms tied 3-3 after one.
“The first goal was huge. It really got the boys’ feet going under them and we found our game,” Konovalov, who finished with five goals and assist as part of the come-from-behind win, said. “A big lesson to learn. Thank God it comes right before playoffs. No matter the period, no matter the score, we just got to play our game.
“Down 3-0 in the first, we can’t just fall apart. We’ve got to keep it going,” Konovalov said. “Three straight goals in a row, a 3-3 game in the first, a little bit of momentum heading into the second and scored three more. Can’t take your foot off the gas — just got to keep it going.”
After being outplayed and outshtot, 14-12, in the first, Ridge (13-6-3) took its first lead of the game 7:17 into the second frame when Konovalov completed the hat trick with assists from Blake Loges and Will Smith. After a 4-4 tie their first meeting of the season on Dec. 7, and a 3-1 setback in the Holiday Tournament on Dec. 29, Ridge turned the tables on the Raiders in the rubber match extending its lead to 5-3 after two when Blake Loges hit with 3:03 left.
“After two losses this past weekend and finding ourselves down 3-0 was definitely an eye-opener,” Loges, who tallied two goals and two assists, said. “But we knew with the group of guys we have, if we put our legs to it we can beat anyone so we felt real confident going into the second.
“We’re getting depth-scoring, too. Everyone contributed,” Loges said. “The comeback was really just a great group effort from the coaches down to every last player with the message, ‘Don’t give up — Keep it Going’”
Any thoughts of mounting a comeback of their own in the third were dashed when Loges made it a 6-3 game on the power play 3:59 into the final frame. Konovalov scored a shorthanded goal assisted by Michael Balzarotti five minutes later before the tandem connected again 28 seconds later to make it 8-3. John Guiliano capped the scoring with 2:50 remaining in regulation.
“We just gave up as a team,” Hillsborough leading scorer Jude Kurtas said. “We can beat them, we have beat them, but we gave up.
“At the beginning of the game we were pressuring them. We were shooting pucks… but after that — nothing,” Kurtas, the state’s leading scorer with 87 points (44-43), said. “Next time, we just can’t give up. We’ve just got to keep working.”
Mullin said the secondary scoring, specifically Saunder Smith’s marker which brought the Red Devils back to within one at 3-2 the final minutes of the first and Guiliano’s goal in the waning moments of the third, are the type of plays needed to get Ridge back to the NJSIAA finals at “The Rock.”
“We use that line to hold off the other team from scoring,” Mullin said, “so when they scored for us that was pretty cool.”
After missing the first 16 games of the season, Konovalov has 15 goals and 21 points in five games since his return on Jan. 21.
“I actually forgot how good of a player he is since I hadn’t seen him play all year,” Mullin said with a laugh. “He’s obviously pretty good. Five goals? That was something.”
Hillsborough’s four-game winning streak snaps. Still, the Raiders (16-5-1) are enjoying a resurgent season under coach Chris Tommins.
“Number one — when we went up 3-0 our guys thought it was over — they thought they were going to cruise,” Hillsborough assistant coach Chris Mikolajczyk said. “Number two — we didn’t backcheck and we didn’t cover the high slot. And a player like Konovalov — he doesn’t need much room. The high slot, the high percentage area — he can bury ’em.
“We just need to get back to some practice,” Mikolajczyk said. “We’ve got Bridgewater-Raritan (in the Skyland Cup) on Wednesday.”
Ridge is eyeing its first state title since 2017 and third overall. The Red Devils were awarded the second seed in the Skyland Cup and the playoff push begins against this week against seventh-seeded Bernards/Somerville/Middlesex.
Pingry (15-2-1) garnered the top seed in the tournament.
“A week from today the playoffs begin,” Mullin said. “And if we survive, we’ll see them again and this game won’t mean anything, their 3-1 win won’t mean anything.
“It’s the perfect time,” Blake Loges said. “Some big momentum heading into state and divisional playoffs. Perfect time to start clicking. We’ll use this as motivation heading into the next one.”
Written by John Christian Hageny / @JCCSPORTS
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