WEST ORANGE, NJ - Apparently, even hockey teams get tired of working overtime.
So after needing an extra session to win each of its first two McInnis Cup Tournament tilts, the fourth-seeded co-op ice hockey contingent fielded by Verona and Glen Ridge High Schools took a 1-0 first frame lead over second-slotted Montclair Kimberley Academy and never looked back, en route to a 4-2 rout of the Ice-Cougars in the tourney's champioship on Saturday night at Codey Arena in West Orange.
To reach the finals, however, the locals first had to outlast fifth-slotted Nutley, 2-1, in overtime on Feb. 13 at Codey and top-slotted, previously unbeaten Montclair High, 3-2, in OT on Thursday night at Clary Anderson Arena in Montclair.
Those results have moved the Hillbilly-Ridgers to 14-8-4 overall and gave the co-op club its third streak of three or more straight wins this season.
In addition, seeded 13th in the NJSIAA Public Schools, B Division State Tournament bracket, the locals are slated to play host to No. 20 Woodbridge in a first round fracas at 6 p.m. today, Monday, Feb. 22, at Codey. The survivor of that skirmish will take on either the fourth seed, perennial power Ramsey, or the 29th seed, Jefferson Township, on Friday.
To understand the invigorating tourney triumphs recorded by by VGR over the past week, one has to look no further back than to six weeks ago, as there was a point at which Verona-Glen Ridge head coach Ken Lilien issued his hockey club a challenge.
That directive came on Jan. 6, after a discouraging 0-6 loss to NJIHL American Division rival MKA Clary.
“We hit rock bottom after that loss,” Lilien recalled. “After the game, we had a meeting and talked about confidence and playing together. Our confidence was pretty shaken after that game. We talked about the fact we were a good hockey team and didn’t want to underachieve this year.”
The culmination of that concept came when the Verona-Glen Ridge ice contingent used a goal and an assist each from senior centerman Owen Gleeson and freshman forward Jake Kuhn and some fine goal-tending from senior netminder Liam Blaney in the tourney's title tilt to cop the cup, 4-2, over MKA.
The McInnis Cup crown is the first for fourth-seeded VGR and the first such success since it claimed the McMullen Cup in 2009. MKA (14-9-2) was seeking its third straight McInnis Cup and fifth in six seasons.
Aside from the 0-6 defeat on Jan. 6, Saturday's success also avenged a 3-9 loss to MKA on Dec. 16.
Verona-Glen Ridge advanced into the final after stunning top-seed and previously unbeaten Montclair, 3-2, on an overtime goal by Gleeson in the semifinal round this past Thursday night, and, before that, Gleeson had also scored the winning goal in overtime in a dramatic 2-1 playoff opening round win over fifth-seeded Nutley on Saturday, Feb. 13.
Verona certainly did not appear to be a team that had lost both meetings to MKA this season by a combined score of 14-3. VGR played a poised, physical game and moved the puck quickly and efficiently out of their own end throughout the 45-minute contest.
Gleeson also pointed to that earlier loss as a turning point for the Hillbillies.
“Coach Lilien pushed us,” said Verona/Glen Ridge's gifted first line centerman. “We were definitely down on ourselves after that loss to MKA. We knew they are a great team but we came in with a good game plan. This is a huge win for our program.”
Kevin White scored in the first period and Kuhn connected off a feed from Gleeson after a turnover along the left boards in the second period to give Verona a 2-0 lead.
MKA responded with 9:57 left in the second period after Devin Pepe scored the first of his two goals to cut the deficit to 2-1 on assists from Brian Schindler and Conor Nolan.
Verona had a power play in the waning minutes of the second and had a glorious scoring opportunity denied when MKA goalie Alex Contey (24 saves) made a diving stop on a shot by Gleeson. But Sean DeCandia delivered a back-breaking goal with just 34 seconds on the clock when he buried a rebound off a scramble in front to extend Verona’s lead to 3-1 after two periods.
MKA came out fiercely in the opening minutes of the third and earned a power play just 1:16 into the stanza after a hooking penalty. The Ice-Cougars then scored with the extra attacker 23 seconds later, but the goal was waved off for a player being in the crease.
“I thought that was a huge call in the game,” said MKA first-year coach Casey Mignone. “I still don’t know about a player being in the crease, but it went from us cutting it to 3-2 to it quickly becoming a 4-1 game. Being down a goal is obviously a big difference than being down three goals in the third period. I thought we had chances but we didn’t play our best game. Alex (Contey) had a great game in goal for us but we came up a little short. But you have to give Verona credit. They played a solid game.”
Indeed with 9:59 left in the third Gleeson knocked in a loose puck to extend Verona’s advantage to 4-1. MKA answered with another goal by Pepe with 5:47 left for a 4-2 score but it was not enough.
Each team finished with 28 shots on goal, but it was a stoic defensive effort by Verona in the middle of the ice and strong play in net from Blaney.
“We knew they have some really good offensive players and they like to use the middle of the ice,” said Gleeson, who flashed his speed and deft dekes on several one-on-one rushes, “So we had to shut them down in the neutral zone and in our end. This win for us is still sinking in.”
Lilien’s first objective was clear in attempting to upset MKA’s attack.
“We had to take away the middle of the ice,” said Lilien, adding, “And we had to try and stop Devin Pepe. But he’s a great player and he still scored two goals. Being able to beat Montclair in the semifinal was also a huge lift for our team. I think we were picked sixth in the league in the beginning of the season, so winning the McInnis Cup is special for our team.”