By Mike Gurnis
STOCKHOLM — Wednesday’s game between Delbarton, No. 1 in the Morris-Sussex Hockey Report Top 10, and No. 2 Pope John, was exactly the type of battle that many have come to expect from the two top teams in the area.
The Gordon Conference counterparts traded punches throughout, and in the end, the teams finished with a 2-2 tie at Skylands Ice World.
But as closely matched as the two teams were on the ice- Delbarton held a slim 31-26 shots on goal advantage over Pope John- both sides had vastly different perspectives on the way the game played out.
On one hand, Pope John came up short in its quest for its first-ever win over Delbarton, as it is now 0-28-4 all-time against the Morris County school, which has won the last three Non-Public state titles. But coach Ryan Brown was pleased with his team’s effort, just one day after admittedly not playing its best game in a 1-0 road win over Notre Dame.
“I was real happy with our effort level today,” Brown said. “We played last night- I know we won- but I don’t think it was our best effort or execution last night. That being said, it’s easy to get excited to play against the best team in the state. They’ve (Delbarton) certainly had our number for many years. I thought our kids played well and played with some confidence today. I thought we played fast and hard, and I thought we had an opportunity to win the game, which you can’t always say when you play Delbarton.”
But on the other side of the ice, Delbarton coach Bruce Shatel expressed disappointment in his team’s performance. The Green Wave came into Wednesday’s game having won eight in a row, including two wins against Massachusetts powers this past weekend, before knocking off Seton Hall Prep just 24 hours prior to facing Pope John.
“I’m disappointed. I’m disappointed with our effort and disappointed with our execution,” Shatel said. “But we’ve played a lot of hockey in the last five days- this is our fourth game in the last five days. There’s really no excuse, but I thought Pope John had a good strategy and they were disciplined. They always had three guys back, they were opportunistic on the two goals, and they did a really nice job. When they had their opportunities they buried them. I thought their goaltender was his normal self, he’s very good. We’ve got to do better and we’re capable of playing better.”
Pope John came out strong in the opening minutes and had several solid opportunities against Delbarton goalie Brett Cleaves. But Delbarton was the team that got on the board first, as Michael Balzarotti passed the puck from the wall to a wide-open James Falivene, who beat Pope John goalie Matt Schoer through the five-hole.
“I think the first thing is puck movement and I think we got that on the first one,” Falivene said of facing one of the state’s elite goaltenders in Schoer. “Mike Balzarotti moved it hard across the ice, and we got him to move laterally and when you get (Schoer) to move laterally you can open him up. I saw the five hole there.”
While Delbarton appeared to have the momentum going into the second period, Pope John came out flying from the opening faceoff of the period and tied it up almost immediately. Johnny Cielo put home the rebound of a Mike Quatrella shot just 12 seconds in, and just like that the game was tied, and all of the momentum was shifted towards the Lions.
Just a few minutes later on the team’s only power play opportunity of the game, Steven Spetz’s floating shot appeared to deflect off Cleaves and into the back of the net, which put Pope John ahead.
Pope John appeared to be well on its way to taking that lead into the third period, and appeared it might be on its way to its first-ever win over the Green Wave. But with just 32 seconds left in the second, it was Falivene who fired one top-shelf from the right circle to tie the game up for good.
“I think a lot of it was between our ears,” Falivene said of the team’s response after falling behind. “We were playing a little sloppy prior to that. But as soon as we focused on our systems and we made crisper passes, I thought it was easier to open up and widen up the ice. Once we got our cycle going, we got pucks to the net and it was much easier to finish.”
“That was a killer,” Brown said of the tying goal. “We talk about that, the first shift of the game, last shift of a period, first shift after a goal either way, those are big turning points in the game. Give credit to the Delbarton player, he made a nice play and that was a beautiful shot. But yes, you want to get out of that period with a 2-1 lead. Give credit to him for making a nice play but on our end we need to be stronger and get that last clear and get out of the period 2-1.”
The third period proved to be relatively even between the two sides as both tried to get the game-winner, and both goalies managed to make big saves to preserve the tie. Schoer finished with 28 saves for Pope John, while Cleaves stopped 22 shots for Delbarton.
“We talked between periods about how it was a 2-2 game and if we win the period, we win the game,” Brown said. “I thought our kids played hard in the third, as did (Delbarton). Overall, it was a good hockey game.”
There were plenty of positives for Pope John to take out of the game, as it now stands at 6-0-1 through seven games, which positions it well for a tough upcoming schedule, which includes the Protec Ponds Holiday Tournament, before beginning to play a grueling stretch of Gordon Conference hockey in January.
“For us, it’s just period and one game at a time,” Brown said. “It’s a good point that we got. I would’ve liked to have seen us get the win, but I think it’s something that our kids are now hungry for. They can say ‘okay, we played a good game, but we need to be better to beat that team.’ And I know they’ll (Delbarton) be better next time we see them. But I thought we took a lot of positives out of today.”
Delbarton had been playing well, as it had won eight in a row prior to Wednesday’s tie. The team feels it has come a long way since its season-opening loss to Don Bosco Prep, but it still views Wednesday’s game as a bit of a wake-up call for the remainder of the season.
“I think there’s a pretty good sentiment in the locker room,” Falivene said. “I think that today was a good wake-up call for us. There’s good teams out there that we have to come ready to play every day. We’re looking forward to the break and to take some time off, but we’ll be ready to get back at it and come harder.”
DEL — James Falivene (Michael Balzarotti, Max Williams) 5:06
PJ — Johnny Cielo (Mike Quatrella) 14:48
PJ — Steven Spetz (Mike Quatrella) PPG 8:11
DEL — James Falivene (Max Williams, Michael Balzarotti) 0:32
Shots on goal: Delbarton 30, Pope John 26.
Saves: Matt Schoer (PJ) 28, Brett Cleaves (DEL) 22.
Team records: Delbarton 8-1-1, Pope John 6-0-1.