By Mike Gurnis
STOCKHOLM — The road to the Halvorsen Cup will go through Vernon.
Vernon- which just four years ago was in the middle of the pack in the bottom-tier Charette Division- has risen through the ranks of the MCSSIHL for the past few seasons, as its rise in success saw it jump to the Haas Division in 2016-17, before moving up to the Halvorsen Division in the 2017-18 season.
Now, in its second season since moving up to the Halvorsen Division, the Vikings can lay claim to its first-ever regular-season title in that division. On Saturday night, Shane Brennan scored twice to help lead Vernon to a 4-1 win over Kinnelon at Skylands Ice World, which secured the team’s first place finish, which means it will be the top seed for the upcoming Halvorsen Cup.
In total, it was Vernon’s third divisional title in four years, after previously winning the Charette in 2015-16 and the Haas in 2016-17. All of this success has come after some very dark times for the program, which included an 0-23 finish during the 2011-12 campaign. It has come a very long way since then, and coach Ray Zimmerman credits the development of a winning culture for the program’s turnaround.
“We won the Bayonne Christmas Tournament that one year with a team that was only about .500,” Zimmerman said. “But we won it and everyone just seemed like they wanted to keep on winning. When you have a program that’s down, the hardest part is changing the culture. We’ve come now to expect to win, no matter who we’re playing. Years ago, we came in expecting to lose. To change that culture is the biggest thing. We have it now, hopefully it will continue.”
It specifically means much to the team’s seniors, such as Shane Brennan and Jack Bokun, who have played major roles for this team over the past four seasons in helping Vernon win three divisional titles.
“This group of guys has been playing together since we were four or five years old,” Brennan said. “We’ve been working for this our whole lives. We just wanted to get to the high school and build the program. I think we’ve done a pretty good job of that, and we showed that today.”
When Vernon defeated Kinnelon 4-3 in the first meeting between the teams back on Dec. 21, it needed to score three times in the third period to overcome a two-goal deficit.
It made sure that it wouldn’t need any late heroics this time around, as Shane Brennan scored two goals in a span of 3:29 early in the second period- one of which came on the power play, the other shorthanded- to build a two-goal cushion.
Vernon’s penalty kill was put to the test, however, as it had to kill off a full two minutes of a 5-on-3 late in the second period. It was a golden opportunity for Kinnelon to get itself back into the game, but the Vernon penalty killers- along with goalie Ozzie Deluca- stepped up and held the Colts off the board.
“We were just trying to keep it simple and play a tight triangle,” said Jack Bokun, who was on the ice for the entirety of the penalty kill. “Everest (Schneider), number eight on their team, is a great player, so whenever he had the puck we just tried to get in the blocking lane.”
Just after the two penalties expired, Schneider came within an inch of putting Kinnelon on the board as he fired a shot off the post. But almost immediately after, freshman Dylan Shea capitalized on a breakaway opportunity for the first goal of his varsity career to extend Vernon’s lead to three.
“That definitely got us going,” Brennan said of the goal. “That was the middle of the game, and it was one hump that we needed to get over to play the rest of the game and give ourselves a chance to win, so I thought that was pretty cool.”
Zimmerman said of the sequence: “Sometimes in a game things happen that jumps you up, and it’s just the hockey gods. Gordie Howe was appreciative of us today.”
Kinnelon finally found the back of the net midway through the third period, as Everest Schneider scored off assists from C.J. Smith and A.J. Fanelli. While it mounted some pressure in the final minutes, Vernon was able to hold off the Colts, and Jack Bokun iced the game with an empty-net goal with 1:14 to go.
Brett Lewis made 32 saves in net for Kinnelon, while Vernon’s Ozzie Deluca finished with 29 saves on 30 shots.
V — Shane Brennan (Jack Bokun, Cole Brennan) 13:00 PPG
V — Shane Brennan (Adam Driscoll, Jack Bokun) 9:31 SHG
V — Dylan Shea (unassisted) 2:21
K — Everest Schneider (C.J. Smith, A.J. Fanelli) 6:35
V — Jack Bokun 1:14 ENG
Shots on goal: Vernon 36, Kinnelon 30
Saves: Brett Lewis (K) 32, Ozzie Deluca (V) 29