STOCKHOLM — Frustrations mounted as defenses took away both time and space, punishing each forward with possession of the puck — and sometimes, even without it.
In a penalty-riddled affair that was as much about pride as it was a battle for positioning in a tight Halvorsen Division race, C.J. Leonardo and Matt Redding erased a Sparta-Jefferson one-goal deficit after two with a pair of goals 20 seconds apart early in the third before West Morris’ Kieran Gruby delivered a game-tying, shorthanded goal with 2:29 remaining in regulation en route to a 2-2 tie at Skylands Ice World in Stockholm.
In a game that featured 50 minutes in penalties — 15 minors, two majors and a game misconduct — both West Morris’ goalie Jeff Ward and Sparta-Jefferson’s Logan Hanek did their best to weather the storm that created constant miss-matches on special teams.
“They were coming in hard and throwing everything at the net there was nothing I could really do,” Ward, who was electric with 40 saves on 42 shots, said. “I saw a shit-ton of shots and just tried to do what I do every game: stay focused, keep pucks to the corners and play a complete game.”
“It was a very physical game. A lot of calls. I just tried to keep my head,” Gruby, a junior, said. “It was a very undisciplined game. I was preaching to the guys not to take any retaliatory penalties.”
Gruby’s advice was not heeded as teammates Ryan Hall and Andrew McKernan were whistled for cross-checking, roughing and unsportsmanlike conduct with 4:48 left in third setting up Sparta-Jefferson with a big, 5-on-3 man-advantage.
Ward and West Morris were able to kill off the first minor to make it 5-on-4 before Gruby saw his chance and took it.
“We were on the PK and I was trying to be aggressive on their D,” Gruby said. “I saw him fumble it, went after it, got a step on him, kept moving my feet, looked up and saw the glove-side open. I took the shot and it went in.”
“West Morris is very physical,” Sparta-Jefferson junior defenseman Matt Redding said. “Our goal was not to stoop down to their level, obviously we did a little bit, but they paid for it in the end. We should have capitalized more than we did.”
With 24 shots on goal in each of the first two periods, West Morris’ Jack Garcia finally broke the ice on the power-play with 3:52 left in the second period. The Chester school took the 1-0 lead into the second intermission, but it was Sparta-Jefferson, celebrating “Senior Night,” that broke through in the third period.
Redding tied the game at one on the power play 1:13 into the final frame before senior C.J. Leonardo connected again just 20 seconds off the ensuing face-off to give the co-op a 2-1 lead with 13:27 remaining. The quick, back-to-back goals swung the momentum in favor of Sparta-Jefferson.
“I changed it up,” Redding said. “I’d been taking big slapshots all game so I snapped a wrister that happened to go in. We wanted to do it for our seniors on “Senior Night,” but their goalie was playing out of his mind.”
Leonardo’s 10th goal of the season, which tied teammate Jaxon Mase for the team lead, finally gave Sparta-Jefferson the lead it coveted.
“I was sitting behind the net on a 5-on-3, I came out of the right corner and shot on net, caught the goalie sleeping five-hole,” Leonardo said.
“I saw a hockey game with a lot of physicality from both teams, a lot of things said to the refs, but I think we did a better job of not saying anything to get them heated,” Leonardo said. “That gave us opportunities and was the reason we got back into the game but props to their goalie, we had 40 shots on net and he only let in two. It was a hell of an effort.”
For Ward, who kept West Morris in it despite being out-shot 18-6 in the opening frame, Gruby’s goal validated a game he felt was his to win.
“That was nice, to come through for me in the end after I made so many good saves,” Ward said. “Would I have liked to win? Yeah, but a tie is alright.”
In the aftermath, West Morris stands 5-7-4 while Sparta-Jefferson goes to 5-7-1. Both teams have nine points in the division race but holds the edge with a 4-3 triumph back on January 3.
“Jeff is an excellent goalie. He sees the puck very well and gives the boys a lot of confidence,” West Morris coach Phil Togno said. “He slows the game down and manages it very well. Sometimes, playing behind us is not an easy feat, we lose our tempers a little bit, we lose our cool, but then you need your goalie there to bail you out.
“Goalies can never cost you a game but they can win you one,” Togno said. “Jeff’s the epitome of a goalie stealing a point there.”
Sparta-Jefferson co-coach Bob Kreisinger was pleased with the way his team battled in the face of adversity.
“We did a good job of containing our emotions, trying to stay out of the box and for the most part we were successful,” Kreisinger said. “But when we weren’t, we hurt ourselves. That’s how they got the first one but the last one was just the bounce of the puck. It ultimately cost us the win but we’ll take the tie.”
Written by John Christian Hageny / @JCCSPORTS
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