UNION COUNTY, N.J. – Summit ice hockey head coach Keith Nixon wanted the Union County Cup “back home where it belonged.” After a scoreless opening 30 minutes, three Hilltopper goals in the third period brought the Cup home.
For the fourth time in the Union County Hockey Leagues’ six-year existence, the Summit Hilltoppers are county champions, defeating rival Westfield, 3-0, on Saturday at Warinanco Skating Center.
The victory is Summit’s third over the Blue Devils this season, however, more importantly for the Hilltoppers, the win makes up for last year’s tournament loss to Westfield.
“Its great to avenge the lost from last year,” Summit junior Chris Zanelli said. “Its always better to beat them after a loss. It just feels that much better that we left no stone unturned this season.”
The first two periods ended up being a wash for both squads, as the teams spent more time in the penalty box then at full strength. However, Summit’s coaching staff knew the cleaner third period team would get the best chance.
While the Hilltoppers didn’t play the final 15 minutes mistake-free, they were benefactor of Westfield’s mistakes.
Zanelli, who was a part of Summit’s 2012 county championship team, forced the biggest Blue Devils error early in the final frame. After fellow junior Riley Flynn ripped a shot towards net, Zanelli stole the puck away from Westfield goaltender Dan DoCampo and into the net to break the scoreless tie.
Less than three minutes later, Flynn earned his second point when he made a savy pass on a 2-on-1 to Liam McLaughlin, who beat DoCampo over his left shoulder, giving Summit the 2-0 advantage.
The Flynn-McLaughlin connection has been one of the best in the state this year. While Flynn led the team in goals over the season and was awarded the game’s MVP, he shined the spotlight on his senior captain, who won his second straight Union County Ice Hockey League Regular Season MVP prior to the game.
“Liam’s one of the best kids you’ll ever meet,” Flynn said. “For him to go out on such a high note is amazing. Anytime you win a game against Westfield, especially in this type of venue, its amazing. For him to go out like that, you couldn’t ask for anything better.”
The victory marked McLaughlin and the rest of the senior class’s third career county title, a feat none of the players or coaches thought could have happened without the play of their veteran goaltender Garrett McGowan. McGowan was unofficially credited with 15 saves in the shutout win.
“He’s been the backbone of this team,” McLaughlin said. “He’s just amazing.”
Despite being excited about the county championship, Nixon was quick to say his team isn’t through yet. They have a lot more to accomplish before the ice melts this season.
“Its one of our goals in the beginning of the season,” Nixon said. “Two down, one to go.”
The third and final goal: a state championship. That run starts on Tuesday night at Warinanco Skating Center when the No. 5 Hilltoppers host No. 28 Lakeland. Face-off is scheduled for 6 p.m.