WALL — He skates with a chip on a shoulder.
Motivated by his physical stature, Niko Neron is in a constant battle to prove that the “little guy” can do big things out on the ice.
And in Tuesday’s 3-2 victory over Class A Central rival Manalapan (0-2-0, 0-1-0), the junior’s efforts proved to be large for the Patriots (1-0-1, 1-0-0).
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BIG THINGS IN A SMALL PACKAGE: Entering the third period of tied game, the first goal was going to be pivotal and it Freehold Township thanks to Neron’s positioning and nose for the puck.
With just over 10 minutes remaining in regulation, Neron — the smallest guy on the ice — muscled his way to the front of the net, while Anthony Altini collected a loose puck in the right circle and slid a pass to Kennan Alkoc at the right point.
The junior defenseman sent the puck down low for Tyler Sanborn, who delivered a touch pass across the slot for Neron, and the centerman didn’t miss, hammering home his second goal of the night, and providing the Patriots the eventual game-winning tally.
“I saw Sanborn cutting toward the net, so I just crashed the net because it’s what coach [Mike Celano] always tells us to do in a situation like that,” Neron said. “The puck ended up on my stick after a great pass, I got a shot off, and to be honest all I could think was just thank God it went in.”
“He’s a junior now and his last two years he’s really been a great contributor for us,” Celano said of Neron. “His first year he led all our freshman with 10 goals. Last year he had a chance to skate on a line with our program’s all-time leading scorer Max Halvorsen. So this year we were looking for some big things out him, and it’s great to see him create and finish and have moment like this in a big game.”
Neron opened the scoring in this rivalry tilt when junior defenseman Kyle Nestepny stick-handled into the zone on a Patriots power play, wheeled behind the net, popped out to the left circle and slid a pass across the slot to the opposite dot. Neron corralled the pass and fired on net, beating freshman netminder Patrick McCarty — who made 27 saves in the game — between the pads for his first marker of the season at 7:20 of the opening frame.
“It just feels great to come through for my teammates,” said Neron, who now has 19 career goals. “And it just shows that the little guy can do it too.”
The Patriots and Braves traded goals in the second period, as Manalapan juniors Freddie Brutto and Ryan Marsala each lit the lamp with their first of the year, and sandwiched a marker by Freehold Township’s Erik Borshchevsky, leading to a 2-2 stalemate after two periods, and Neron’s game-winner early in the third.
OTTONE EXCEPTIONAL: However, Neron’s efforts would have been all for naught if not for the impressive performance of junior netminder Michael Ottone, who was once again stellar in his second appearance of the year.
Ottone entered the night off a 26-save game in a 1-1 tie with Paramus Catholic (Nov. 28), and was brilliant once again, stopping 27 of 29 Manalapan shots.
In the middle of the second period, Ottone stuck with Brutto on a penalty shot, failing to bite on three different head fakes, before smothering a backhand shot on the doorstep.
Though it was third period where Ottone truly shined, as the keeper kept all 12 Manalapan shots from finding the back of the net, including four in the final 70 seconds with the Braves’ net empty.
“When in your in the net in that kind of situation, you’re not really thinking about the pressure or anything other than stopping the puck,” Ottone said. “I thought my defense did a great job helping me with that, keeping pucks to the outside and clearing the shooting lanes. And overall I think we did a great job.”
“I’ve always tried to build a team from the net out, and having Michael in the program and contributing the way he has, it’s been phenomenal,” Celano said. “Last year he came in and played a big game against Southern Regional to be a the A-South champs. And his first two games of this season he’s picked up right where he left off.”
Freehold Township will skate in another big divisional game on Friday at 7 p.m. against Marlboro at the Jersey Shore Arena.