WEST ORANGE, NJ — As the clock wound down and the shots continued to rain, it became a wonder whether another goal would even be scored in the game.
Ridge goalie Marcus Fabiunke and his counterpart at the other end of the ice, C.J. Duffy, turned away the opposition time and again, but as the game headed to sudden-death overtime it became clear one would go home brokenhearted for no fault of his own.
Luke Rich snapped a scoreless tie for Ridge with 8:20 remaining in regulation, but Thomas Conrod tied it for Westfield with 1:47 left before Alex Konovalov’s goal — a deflection off Tyler Eberling’s initial shot 9:33 into sudden-death — decided it as the second-seeded Red Devils, the 2017 state champs, booked a return engagement with a 2-1 victory over the third-seeded Blue Devils in the semifinals of the NJSIAA Public B Tournament at Codey Arena in West Orange.
Ridge (18-7-3), which captured its first state title in nine years two seasons ago, will take on top-seed and eight-time state champion Randolph (21-4-2) in the NJSIAA Finals on Monday at Prudential Center in Newark.
“Not good for my mental health — absolutely, probably the most fun, nerve-wracking hockey game I’ve ever played — I’m out of breath,” Konovalov, who’s comeback was complete after making a successful return to the ice, said. “A lot of bodies going to the net, an absolute great shot by Ty, I just crashed the net, got my eyes on it and was able to get a stick on it. After that, my legs just gave out. It was a great sequence — a textbook play. I’m just so grateful to be a winner here and get a trip back to ‘The Rock.'”
“You can’t put it into words,” Fabiunke, who turned aside 42 of the 43 shots he faced, said. “It’s so stressful but so much fun. When you’re there, you’re thinking, ‘Something bad could go wrong and that’s the season.’ But once it goes right — it’s the best feeling in the world.”
When Westfield tied the game at 1-1 in the waning moments of regulation, then came out firing on all cylinders in overtime, Ridge coach Tim Mullin feared the worst.
“They pretty much hammered us the first seven or eight minutes of overtime,” Mullin, 389-144-76 in 23 seasons as head coach at Ridge, said. “I knew it was going to be tough. All the shots these kids had, both goalies were there, both goalies were right on, both goalies were so good. It was going to take a tip shot. Sort of lucky, you know?
“Marcus stopped every one except one,” Mullin said with a laugh.
It was a battle for field position the first two periods as both teams levied some big open-ice hits at center ice and in transition. Neither goaltender wavered in what shaped up to be a tight, defensive battle.
When Rich snapped a scoreless stretch of 41:40 to give Ridge a 1-0 lead, the deficit seemed insurmountable. But Westfield never stopped battling and tied the game at one in the waning moments to force sudden-death overtime.
“Heartbreaking,” Westfield coach Joseph Bertucci said. “For them to come back the way they did, battle the way they did… they gave me everything and that’s the most heartbreaking part of it. They did everything they could today.”
Duffy, the backbone of the Blue Devils who guided Westfield so many big wins including triumphs in the Union Cup in 2018 and the McInnis Cup in 2019, stood up for his team just as he always had done after the game.
“Kind of at a loss for words here,” Duffy, who stood tall yet again for Westfield with 36 saves in between the pipes. “Both teams played unreal. We took it the length, to five minutes left in overtime. I can’t be more proud of the boys. They played their asses off. Nobody thought we would take Ridge to the state semifinals in overtime. Everyone doubted us. But like I said before, this team is extremely resilient and I couldn’t be more proud.”
Westfield concludes one of most its successful seasons to date at 17-6-3.
“C.J. being C.J. — he’s been that kid the last two years,” Bertucci said. “He thrives under this spotlight and under this pressure. He gave us a chance to win and that’s all you could ever ask out of a goalie.”
At the end of the game, the hockey gods favoured Ridge.
“Stick-save, glove-save, whatever it was, I was like, ‘Oh man, this could be season,'” Fabiunke said. “Once we scored, my stomach dropped and I booked it to center ice. There was nothing else on my mind.”
“You’re out there, you’re gassed. You’re just trying the best you can,” Eberling, who set up the game-winner, said. “Every time you get the puck, you try to make the best of it, make the best out of the opportunities. As a team, we lasted the whole game. We took some penalties, we were getting pounded, we were able to kill those off, it’s just an unbelievable feeling to reward yourself.”
Ridge was outshot 43-38 but weathered the storm.
“The entire game was really defensive, both teams didn’t really have a lot of chances. Once we buried the first one — it was huge,” Konovalov said. “Unfortunately, they got one back but all the boys were great, we didn’t hang our heads. In overtime, thankfully, I was able to get a stick on it and put it in the back of the net. It was such a hard-fought game. I can’t believe we came out on top. Just a great game by everybody. A shocker. Still in disbelief.”
“You can’t beat it,” Rich said. “It’s the greatest feeling in the world.”
Written by John Christian Hageny / @JCCSPORTS
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