By Mike Gurnis
SOMERSET — The early portion of the season has been full of success, but also full of learning experiences for a young Pope John roster that has just five seniors.
On Saturday night, yet another opportunity to grow came about in the Protec Ponds Holiday Tournament championship game against Middletown North. Pope John built a two-goal lead in the opening 5:05 of the game, but saw that lead slip away in the final two periods despite controlling the majority of the possession.
But in a rare regular-season overtime game (NJSIAA rules only permit overtime during the regular season in holiday tournaments), the Lions got their first taste of the extra session with the game tied after 45 minutes. And it took just 16 seconds before defenseman Mike Quatrella’s wrap-around found its way into the back of the net, which gave Pope John a dramatic 3-2 win over Middletown North for the Protec Ponds Tournament title at Protec Ponds.
“We had the power play, so I just wanted to get in the zone and get set up,” Quatrella said of his game-winner. “I saw a little opening, I went to the front of the net to try to pass it, and it just happened to go in.”
While it won’t officially go down as a win in the eyes of the NJSIAA, the Lions got a trophy, and more importantly found a way to prevail in a tight game without two of its top players and senior leaders in Steven Spetz and goaltender Matt Schoer.
“We only had two seniors in the lineup tonight, so it was important that we continue to learn how to win these games,” Pope John coach Ryan Brown said. “I think we’re a good team, but we’re just not the type of team- like maybe a CBA- that can pull away with that real offensive firepower. We just don’t have that. Every game that we play this year, a lot of them are close. We’re learning to win those games. We gave up that late one there, but give them a lot of credit, they did a great job. Their goaltender played well and made a couple of big stops to keep them in the game.”
Lucas Buchanan scored both goals for Pope John in the opening 5:05 of the game, and it appeared the Lions may be well on their way to a drama-free victory.
But the drama began to kick in early in the second period, as Middletown North’s Chris Repman found a way to beat Pope John’s freshman goalie in Matiss Bars (18 saves) on a rebound.
After that goal, Pope John seemed to retake control of the game, as it had a lot of offensive zone time and several grade-A scoring opportunities. Middletown North goalie Matt Corella, however, did all he could to keep his team in the game, and made 35 saves- while surrendering no goals in the second and third periods.
Then, with 7:24 left, Repman struck again, as he went top-shelf on a shot from the right circle, which tied the game.
“It was good for us to play in a tight game, regardless of who we’re playing,” Brown said. “One mistake and the puck is in the back of your net. Even though we controlled a lot of the play, they (Middletown North) deserve a lot of credit for being opportunistic. Their goalie kept them in the game, so for us it was a learning experience to just keep plugging.”
A goal-mouth scramble with 58 seconds left in regulation ended with a late hit penalty being assessed to Middletown North, which gave Pope John a key late power play opportunity.
It wasn’t able to capitalize prior to overtime, but 16 seconds into the extra period, Quatrella went around the back of the net and attempted to make a pass in front. However, his pass ended up trickling past Corella and into the back of the net- a fortunate bounce- but one that gave the Lions an early-season trophy.
“A lot of times it’s not a pretty goal that you see in any level of hockey, whether it’s the NHL, collegiate, sometimes you just get a good bounce and it finds a way in,” Brown said. “That’s what we were lucky enough to have happen for us tonight. So it was a good lesson for our young guys.”
PJ — Lucas Buchanan (Ryan Cielo, Alex Dupuis) 13:08
PJ — Lucas Buchanan (Alex Blaszak, Alex Dupuis) 9:55
MN — Chris Repman (Anthony Tavares) 13:24
MN — Chris Repman (Anthony Tavares) 7:24
PJ — Mike Quatrella 14:46 PPG
Shots: Pope John 38, Middletown North 20
Saves: Matt Corella (MN) 35, Matiss Bars 18
Team records: Pope John 8-1-2, Middletown North 5-4-1