NEWARK — Scott Schnell of Hunterdon Central admitted his hands were shaking with nerves before the opening faceoff as his team was on the threshold of securing its first state title.
But the senior captain quickly overcame those jitters and showcased his scoring touch as he registered a hat trick, Rich Stefanik collected three assists and Noah Dominick stopped 14 shots as Hunterdon Central skated to a 5-1 victory over tri-op Woodbridge/Colonia/Edison in the NJSIAA Public A championship at Prudential Center in Newark.
The state title is the first for second-seeded Hunterdon Central, which finishes 16-7-3.
Woodbridge, the ninth seed, made one of the more memorable runs in state tournament history in earning its first trip to the final with overtime victories in its previous two post-season games. The Middlesex County school posted a 21-5-1 log.
“Now we will be able to see a state championship hockey banner hang in our school,” said Schnell, who finished with 11 goals and 14 assists this winter. “It’s amazing. My hands and body were shaking in the locker room before we hit the ice. I didn’t think I’d be too nervous, but I was. But this is special. We’ll be able to look back on this season for a long time.”
Schnell didn’t waste any time disposing of those pregame jitters when he connected just 53 seconds after the opening faceoff on the game’s first shot to give Hunterdon Central a 1-0 lead and all the momentum it needed. He curled out of the left corner and whistled a rising shot short-side as linemates Stefanik and James Coussoulle each picked up an assist.
The Red Devils extended that advantage to 2-0 with 10:53 left on their third shot after Chris Del Gaizo threw a dump-in from outside the Woodbridge blue line that ticked off the stick of goalie Adam Godfrey for an unassisted goal.
“Getting that first goal that quickly and then getting a 2-0 lead was huge,” said Hunterdon Central coach Paul Cavanaugh, now in his sixth season. “We’ve been a team that didn’t usually have good starts in the first period for whatever reason, but tonight we did when it counted the most. This was a real difficult playoff run and we always seemed to have some real tough losses in the second round the past few seasons. But this year we were able to put it all together.”
That two-goal deficit could have jolted Woodbridge, but the resilient club was quite familiar with being the team that showed no fear this post-season. They responded by producing on the game’s first power play as Travis Beni delivered his 25th goal of the season with a redirect from the slot seconds into the man-advantage. The goal cut the Woodbridge deficit to 2-1 as T.J. Evan assisted with 10:08 on the clock.
In fact, Woodbridge had advanced by upsetting top-seeded Montclair in overtime before coming back from a 2-0 deficit in the final minute and winning in overtime against fifth-seeded Marlboro-Holmdel, 3-2, in the semifinal.
In that dramatic comeback against Marlboro, Evan connected twice 12.2 seconds apart in the final minute before Beni won it at 3:02 of overtime.
But Woodbridge did not have that last comeback left in the tank.
“We didn’t get the outcome we had wanted,” said Beni, who finished with a stellar 75 points on 25 goals and 30 assists this season. “The odds were against us the entire tournament, but we showed what kind of character we had. When we were down 2-1 we weren’t worried at all, because we’d been down before. We knew we always had a chance to come back. We weren’t able to do it in the final, but we had an unreal season. It was an incredible ride.”
Hunterdon Central came through with another key goal in the second when Eric Szanto, seconds after his slot attempt was denied by Adam Godfrey (18 saves), shrugged off a check in the left circle, deked a defenseman and whipped in a snap shot with 4:09 on the clock to give Hunterdon Central a 3-1 lead as Jacob Poltz assisted.
The Red Devils, who outscored their opponents 16-4 during four playoff victories, continued to roll four lines and the constant rotation of fresh legs took its toll on Woodbridge.
Related: Hunterdon Central in the Hunt
Hunterdon Central put the contest away when Schnell finished off a two-on-one with Stefanik and buried another high snap shot glove-side from the left dot just 1:08 into the third to give the Red Devils a 4-1 advantage.
Schnell closed out the scoring when he scored off an assist from Stefanik at 7:59 of the third to extend the lead to 5-1 for Hunterdon Central.
“We knew that depth would be a factor,” said Woodbridge coach Chris Monticollo. “Hunterdon Central is a balanced team up front and all of their lines can score. They wore us out by the third period, and that was a concern. But even when we were down 2-0 early we were never giving up. We finished the right way and our players can be proud of what they accomplished.
“We told them after it ended that they had nothing to hang their heads about. They came this far, to the state final, and its farther than most teams do. They made history in getting here and had a 25-win season. It was a fantastic season and our players can be proud of what they did.”
Overall, Hunterdon Central finished with a 23-15 advantage in shots over Woodbridge.
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Cavanaugh believed that his bench and the ability to send four lines over the boards was critical.
“We were so balanced this year and we rolled four lines again tonight. That depth in the playoffs was huge,” Cavanaugh said. “I thought for playing in our first final the guys seemed pretty relaxed and our top guys produced. We played a fast game and we pressured them and got the puck deep enough. Wining the championship is tough to put into words. We had so much support and it means a lot.
“We had always seemed to underachieve in the state playoffs,” Cavanaugh said, “but not this year.”
Written by Paul Bruno / @PaulBrunoHS
Special to HockeyClan
Main Image: Hunterdon Central celebrates its first-ever state championship on the ice at Prudential Center in Newark on March 5, 2018. (Tom Smith/TSPImages)
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