Southern Hockey Team Rebounds After Falling Short in SCT Handchen Cup Final
In high school sports, lessons can be learned every day. The Southern Regional ice hockey team learned at least one or two on Thursday, Feb. 16, during its Shore Conference Tournament Handchen Cup championship contest against Jackson Memorial.
The first lesson was that playoff hockey is always different than regular-season stuff, regardless of whether your squad had beaten the opponent before. The second lesson was that crashing the net and getting to rebounds around the crease is vital if your team is going to have any chance of winning.
“We beat Jackson a few weeks ago, but they changed something this time around,” said Southern head coach Matt Hayes, after his Rams fell short, 2-0, against the Jaguars, who two days earlier had knocked off top-seeded Middletown South, 4-1, in the semifinals. “We had difficulty penetrating their defense and getting to the net, and that’s what we have to change going into the state tournament. We have to put pucks on goal and get to the net for rebounds.”
Most of Southern’s 24 shots on Jackson goaltender Matt Pousson allowed for follow-up opportunities, as the Jaguars not only did a fantastic job of closing up the slot and minimizing excellent scoring chances but also a stellar job of keeping any Rams away from rebounds. In contrast, the Jaguars mustered multiple opportunities in which they peppered Southern goaltender Cam Conrad, who ended up with 33 saves.
In what was a physical game from the start, neither team found the back of the net during the first period despite a few decent scoring chances. Nearing the 10-minute mark of the second, Jackson went on the power play and forced Conrad to make six saves, including a big one with 13 seconds left to the man advantage, as he managed to get his left leg toward the left post on a rebound attempt from right in front of the crease.
From there, the play was back and forth, but the Jaguars had a distinct edge in scoring chances, while many of the Rams’ shots were hitting Pousson from easier angles in the circles. On a few occasions, Southern players carried the puck behind the net and attempted centering passes that simply never got to their intended location, or made it through to the slot but no other Rams were in sight.
Eventually, Jackson found a way to put the puck in the net. With 4:37 gone in the third period, Mike Krzyzewski fired a shot from the top of the left circle and Conrad steered it aside with his left pad. As Matt Mezzina skated by, he tipped the puck back into the slot, where Nick Swain took a hack at it and poked it past a sprawled Conrad for a 1-0 lead.
Another Southern penalty later in the third period essentially allowed Jackson to burn off a couple of minutes when the Rams didn’t have minutes to give, and with 2:50 to go Southern furiously kept trying to gain the offensive zone against a Jaguars defense that had all but shut down any offensive rhythm through the neutral zone.
With 1:05 to go, Conrad skated to the bench for an extra skater and the Rams went to work in the Jackson end. Southern moved the puck around in the right corner for a brief time before the puck squirted out to the point. But the Rams’ next shot toward the net was blocked by Jackson’s Trevor Cear, who then skated the puck through the neutral zone and into Southern’s zone before easily burying an empty-net goal with 23 seconds left.
Almost a month prior, on Jan. 20, Southern downed the Jaguars, 4-3, to take control of the Shore Conference Class A South division title race, which Southern ultimately won by finishing 8-0 against divisional foes.
“Clearly, that doesn’t matter at this point in the season,” Hayes said. “Give Jackson credit. They came up big by beating Middletown South the other night, and their defense was huge tonight. If you look back throughout our season so far, there are very few games in which we only had 20 shots on goal.
“In the playoffs, a hot goalie can steal the show and Cam had that kind of night for us, because he was outstanding. But we thrive on a run-and-gun kind of game, and Jackson shut us down. We had to find another way to get goals and we didn’t get to the net enough to do that.”
Against Old Tappan in the NJSIAA Public A first round on Monday, Feb. 20, the No. 8 Rams apparently found plenty of ways to score during a 6-0 victory, sending them to the second round to face No. 9 Princeton on Thursday, Feb. 23.
It took Southern more than 16 minutes to get on the scoreboard, but once Nolan Ruff staked the Rams to the lead 1:49 into the second period they managed to add five more goals in a variety of ways. David Lytle made it 2-0 with 3:43 left in the second when he scored short-handed off assists from Trent Markley and Paul Keyes.
Lytle wasn’t finished, as he scored three more times in the third period. Ruff scored once more as well. Just 1:23 into the third, Lytle took a Nick Englebert pass and buried it, then just over two minutes later scored on the power play off a Reno D’Agostini pass.
Ruff added another power-play goal, unassisted, with 9:09 to go, before Jack Conrad and Keyes assisted on Lytle’s fourth goal with 4:08 left to cap the scoring. Cam Conrad saved 25 shots on goal for the shutout.
— David Biggy