By Mike Gurnis
After a 3-1 loss to Randolph back on Jan. 11, Chatham sat at 5-10-1, and with a tough schedule looming, its hopes for even qualifying for the state tournament were fading fast after a stretch in which the team dealt with an unusual string of injuries and illnesses.
Since that loss, the tide has turned drastically for the Cougars. It was able to go 4-0-1 in its next five to make itself eligible for an at-large bid for the state tournament, and overall, had gone 8-1-1 in its last 10 prior to Thursday’s Public C semifinal with Northern Highlands.
The Cougars kept their incredible run going, as Matt Keane scored 2:34 into overtime to help the sixth-seeded Cougars earn a 2-1 win over seventh-seeded Northern Highlands in the NJSIAA/New Jersey Devils Public C semifinals at Codey Arena in West Orange.
The win sent Chatham to its second-consecutive Public C championship game, a year after falling to Summit, 3-0 at Prudential Center. It will get yet another crack at Summit on Monday at 4:15 in the title game in Newark, as it looks to win the team’s third state title in program history and first since 2013.
It also means Chatham will be the first at-large team to participate in a title game since Morris Knolls in 2014. It will look to become the second of its type to win it all, after Morris Knolls came away with the hardware that season.
Thursday’s game was a very even game throughout, but Chatham struck first in the second period when Nate Marshall scored with 8:35 left.
The even play continued throughout, and midway through the third period, it appeared that Chatham was on its way to taking care of business in regulation. But Northern Highlands’ Mark Cinotti had other ideas, as his shot found his way past Chatham goalie Zach Pendergrast with 5:29 left to tie it up.
Northern Highlands clearly gained momentum from that goal, and possessed the puck for the majority of the final five minutes. It generated more than a few strong scoring opportunities, but Pendergrast stayed poised and calm in net, and was a big reason his team was able to preserve the tie and get to overtime.
In the end, it was Keane who fired one past Northern Highlands goalie John Werber in overtime, sparking a wild celebration. Now, Chatham will try to add one more celebration to a season in which it appeared there wouldn’t be a whole lot of celebrating no less than a month-and-a-half ago.