TOMS RIVER — When staring into the teeth of adverse conditions, it’s not so much the predicament itself that is most revelatory about a team…but, rather, the response.
In the waning minutes of Friday evening’s Winding River Holiday Tournament final featuring defending Shore Conference Cup Champions Wall Township (Dowd Cup) and Jackson Memorial (Handchen Cup), a one-goal Crimson Knights advantage was erased when Matt Mezzina and Noah Sampson went to work behind the goal line, digging a puck off the boards and sliding it into the slot for senior captain Michael Krzyzewski to jam home the equalizing tally with 8:24 remaining in regulation.
The momentum had swung. That much was evident as a raucous Jaguars fan section directed shockwaves of jubilance from the Winding River balcony to the ice sheet below. But the response was immediate, as the Knights unknotted the contest just 11 seconds later.
The very next shift proved fruitful for Wall Township, as the club’s top line trio of senior standouts answered with a quick tally of their own, as Larry Hooper gained possession along the right side boards and ripped a slap shot through a Ryan Burns screen that was redirected past Matt Pousson – who was stellar with 34 saves in the game – by Zach Tarantino for a 2-1 lead in an eventual 3-2 Knights (9-0-1) victory over the Jaguars (8-2-1).
“That’s a play we always work on in practice,” said Tarantino, who added an empty net goal with 1:19 to play in the third period, before Jackson Memorial’s Kevin Lalley made it a 3-2 final when he notched a power play marker with three second left. “Burns tries to win the draw to Hooper on the wall, I’ll circle into the slot, he’ll take a shot and I’ll try to tip it home…It hadn’t worked for us yet, we never scored on it before tonight. Thankfully, we finally got it to work in a big spot.”
The Knights’ dynamic threesome played a role in all of Wall Township’s conversions, as Burns picked up the primary assist on Tarantino’s second of then night, while Hooper and Tarantino registered the helpers on Burns’ 13th of the season, which opened the scoring at 6:49 of the middle frame.
“We’re confident when we’re on the ice together, because we know each other so well at this point,” Burns said. “And there’s no better feeling than creating offense and being able to come through for your team in a big game like this.”
The Winding River Holiday Tournament was the first of four titles Wall Township has their sights set on, and toppling a championship-caliber opponent like the Jaguars — while skating without top-pair defenseman Bobby Seelinger and key forwards Jack Teextor and Nick Casais — only fortifies Tarantino’s belief in this outfit.
“Guys are going to be in and out of the lineup, it happens. But we have a lot of depth on this team, and I think it goes to show that if we play our game, I believe we can beat any team out there,” said Tarantino, who was named the Tournament Finals Most Valuable Player. “We have this first title, and now we have to work hard to accomplish our goal of getting the Division, Shore Conference and States.”
Though the Jaguars may not have left the arena with the championship hardware, at the very least they should rest easy knowing their effort cemented the program’s stature as one of the best in the Shore Conference, and certainly atop the mountain in Ocean County…especially when considering Jackson Memorial could have easily had the first goal in this title bout.
Nick Swain appeared to have the first goal of this contest in the opening period, as the junior got in behind the defense, made backhand-forehand move before tucking it past the outstretched boot of Knights keeper Logan Beattie (who made 29 saves in the win).
— Casey J Krish(inski) (@CaseyKrish) December 30, 2017
While the Jaguars celebrated their apparent tally, the officials waved it off, and it was later explained that the play was whistled down and the puck deemed covered ahead of Swain putting it over the goal line.
“I wasn’t going to blow a gasket and lose my cool. It was a tough break, but the boys played well and I hope they proved something to themselves tonight, because they certainly showed something to everyone else watching,” Jaguars coach Larry Clayton said. “This was a heck of a game, and it’s one our guys can build upon.”