TOMS RIVER, NJ — When the postseason rolls around, it is a simple formula that brings forth success: survive and advance.
Freehold Township did just that on Monday night at Winding River Rink in Toms River, skating to a come-from-behind 5-3 triumph over Southern Regional in the Sweet-16 round of the NJSIAA Public B state tournament.
Jacob Liebross connected on a pair of goals and Colin Sullo deposited a key insurance marker early in the final period to help guide ninth-seeded Freehold Township into the quarterfinal round. It awaits the winner of #1 Randolph-#17 Passaic Valley/Cedar Grove.
Many teams get the opportunity to play for a state championship, but unlike the regular season, there is no chance at redemption should you fail to come out on top.
“It’s a one-and-done and if you don’t win it’s over,” Freehold Township head coach Mike Celano said. “We came prepared with our senior leadership.”
With 2:08 remaining in the final period, Southern was gifted their eighth power-play of the evening and needed to connect in order to keep their season from reaching a conclusion earlier than they would prefer. Southern threw the puck at the net from every angle they could, but Mike Ottone and the Patriots defense kept the Rams in check.
“We couldn’t take the foot off the gas,” Sullo said. “We had to keep playing the same type of game that got up here.”
“These guys have been here before and even still it’s tense and stressful,” Celano added. “That’s why we love this sport. If it wasn’t this exciting then no one would want to play.”
The state tournament got off to a slow start for Freehold Township, surrendering a pair of goals after two skaters were sent off following a pair of penalties mid-way through the first period.
Jeffrey Leonard broke the ice when he deflected a shot from Justin Braun out of the air and into the cage to stake Southern to the early advantage before Yater Henry doubled it when he struck on a well-placed wrist shot set up by Joe Cajzer just 1:19 after.
The early barrage with the man-advantage left the Patriots in an early 2-0 hole, but with over 33 minutes of hockey still left to play before the finish line, there was still plenty of time for their dynamic offense to strike a comeback.
Liebross wasted no time getting his club back into the game with a power-play goal of his own in the final minute of the opening frame, sniping a rocket from the blue line past Southern goalie Trey Mattern just seven ticks into the Freehold man-advantage.
“That goal was the one that changed all of the momentum,” Liebross said of his first strike of the night. “We were down 2-0, just went from there.”
“We knew we couldn’t hang our heads,” Sullo said. “We had to keep battling and getting pucks deep.”
Celano knows all-too well the significance of goals coming just prior to the end of a period.
“He came up big there for us,” Celano said of the last-minute goal that cut the deficit to 2-1. “It’s never good to go down like that, but these boys have been there before. We have 11 seniors who know what it takes to win and tonight they put it together.”
The ice cut after the first period allowed for a much needed rest for a team blitzed in the opening minutes by a young and hungry Southern team looking to make a run after failing to qualify for the postseason a season ago.
“We knew this would be a battle. We knew they were a tough team,” Celano said. “The 9 vs 8 game is always a toss-up and they are a young team that is always ready to battle.”
Tyler Sanborn leveled the score 3:16 into the second before Liebross struck again to give Freehold their first lead, 3-2, with 5:55 left in the second period.
The second frame also provided a lock-down effort from a group of blueliners that held Southern to just a pair of shots in the second stanza after surrendering two scores in a span of 79 seconds in the first.
“We are deep on defense with a Division-I commit in Tyler DesRochers, Liebross, Kennan Alkoc, Zach Neron as a freshman, and Eliza Slinin all being solid for us,” Celano said of the Patriots’ corps. “We are still missing a big piece in Kyle Nestepny who hopefully we get back this week.
“We knew we were not going to give up many scoring opportunities, and as this one went along we noticed they were getting a little worn-down and tired on the fore-check.”
The final stanza allowed the Patriots defense to shine again, but this time Southern came at them with more urgency with the possibility of the season ending becoming more realistic with each passing second.
“They put the foot on the gas in the third. There was no way that team was going down tonight without making us work for it.” Celano said.
Sullo deposited a crucial insurance goal 38 seconds into the third to make it a 4-2 game and the frantic comeback attempt was on.
Cajzer was able to draw Southern (12-4-4) back to within a goal with 4:56 remaining, but Ottone and the Freehold defensive unit would never yield the equalizer.
Ottone pressed aside 21 shots on the night — including 13 in the third period — to earn the win. Mattern concluded his freshman season with a 29-save effort.
Niko Neron concluded the scoring with an empty-net goal with less than a second remaining and the celebration was on.
DesRochers and Evan McNamara each tallied a pair of assists in the triumph for Freehold Township (14-8-3), which became the second Shore Conference school to pull a huge upset on Monday after 12th-seeded Middletown North slipped past fifth-seeded Manasquan earlier in the day.
“At this point in the season, special teams are important. Solid goaltending and proper defense is a necessity,” Celano commented. “The special teams can certainly lose you or win you a game.”
Related: Manasquan Captures Dowd Cup
— FTHS Ice Hockey (@FTHSHockey) February 19, 2019
Written by Casey J. Krish / @CaseyKrish
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