WEST ORANGE, NJ — The West Essex ice hockey team is moving on in the Public B State Playoffs after a 4-2 upset victory over Livingston in the first round on Wednesday evening.
“I’m very proud of these guys [and] the seniors especially,” said West Essex head coach Marc Gregory. “This is their first playoff win, so I’m proud of the way we played, and they did everything we asked them to.”
The loss was particularly shocking for Livingston after having decisively beaten West Essex in three previous contests this year.
“We certainly had our opportunities to score tonight, and we just didn’t get it done tonight,” said Livingston Head Coach Dave Conklin. “It’s unfortunate, but [West Essex] took advantage of their opportunities.”
The two teams were knotted at one heading into the second period, where the game tipped into the Knights’ favor. Jack Santoro created havoc on a penalty kill with a turnover that he buried in the back of the net for the 2-1 lead with 6 minutes and 35 seconds left in the frame.
“It was huge, and the shorthanded goal was Jack being Jack,” said Gregory. “[Santoro] showed why he should be First-Team All-League, in my opinion.”
A mere three minutes and 25 seconds later, another bounce would go the Knights way. Connor Hapward’s deflected shot from the point knuckled on the Livingston goaltender for the decisive blow of the game.
“It goes to show you that if you play the right way and do the right things, the bounces will go your way,” said Hapward, who had two goals in the game and finished his last four games with four points on the stat sheet. “I was getting chirps on the bench about lucky bounces, but I’ll take what I can get.”
The Lancers battled back to make the game uncomfortably close in the third period. With 10 minutes and 43 seconds left in the game, Austin Vecchio collected his second goal of the game to cut the Knights’ lead in half.
“[Vecchio] is a very good player,” said Conklin. “He’s young and a solid sophomore…He’ll be a dominant player as he starts to fill out.”
The Knights refused to be denied a trip to the state tournament, however, utilizing their special teams units.
Rocco Garcia’s power-play goal with five minutes and 31 seconds left in the game was enough insurance to send the Knights onward.
“Special Teams is the difference in games a lot of times, and their power play has killed us this year,” said Gregory. “The shorthanded goal helped; and when we put one in on the power play, it’s certainly huge.”
Overall, the West Essex defense was a key factor in the win for the squad. The group was able to hold Livingston’s Mike Mumm and Dylan Foley to a single point on the evening after the duo collected 15 points against them in the previous three games.
“We knew they were a very common opponent,” said Hapward. “We saw them a few times this season [and] we knew they were a team similar to us. They have Mumm and Foley, and we tried to shut them down, and we did that today to come out with the victory.”
The loss will effectively end Livingston’s season at a 10-8-5 record. With only four seniors this year, the youthful Lancers squad will look to grow from the experience in 2021.
“Going forward, we just have to pick it up and keep getting better,” said Conklin.
West Essex improves to 12-10-3 on the season after winning three of the last four games.
“We have to keep up with the attitude we have,” said Hapward. “We’re the 10 seed, and we weren’t really happy with that [so] we want to show who we are.”
The Knights will look to continue their playoff run when they take on the winner of Westfield and Manalapan in the next round.