By Mike Gurnis
MORRIS TWP. — A year ago, Mendham plowed through the Haas Division with relative ease en route to a Haas Cup title.
This season, the Minutemen had the opportunity to move back up to the Halvorsen Division, where it had played every year since 2004-05 prior to a rough 2017-18 season in which it finished dead last, and thus moved to the Haas Division.
After a rough beginning to the season, Mendham has shown the ability to play with, and even beat some of the division’s top teams. And on Saturday night, it claimed the division’s top prize, as the third-seeded Minutemen rolled past top seed Roxbury, 4-2, for the Halvorsen Cup title at Mennen Arena.
It was Mendham’s fourth Halvorsen Cup title- after previous titles in 2009, 2013, and 2014. It also became the first team to win the Haas and Halvorsen Cups in back-to-back seasons.
“It’s exciting. They set that goal,” Mendham coach John Kovacs said. “Like I said, they built to it. We told them that if you win the division it’s great, but all six teams are in anyway. So you prepare to win it, whether you play two games in the playoffs or three games in the playoffs. It really worked out well for us.”
Mendham’s run to the cup certainly did not come without its share of adversity throughout its first season back in the Halvorsen, as it went winless in its first four games, before winning six of its next seven.
“First few games we had as a team, we actually weren’t that good,” senior Ryan Bruin said. “We finally figured it out and got our mojo together, and we worked through it. We’re a team now. We got it to the end.”
Mendham dominated the opening minutes of Saturday’s game, as it out-shot Roxbury 15-2 in the opening period, but only had one goal to show for it thanks to the play of Roxbury goalie Ryan Callahan, who admirably kept his team in the game. Fittingly, it was Bruin, Mendham’s captain, who ripped home a shot top shelf to open the scoring with 1:07 left in the first.
The second period saw Mendham take control hanks in large part to its special teams, as it netted two power play goals off the sticks of Liam Lloyd and Stefan Michura. The Minutemen also kept Roxbury’s power play off the scoreboard until late in the game despite several opportunities.
“We’ve been working on the power play and penalty kill throughout,” Bruin said. “Both practice and every game we try something different, and we stuck with what worked. We got it done.”
After E.J. Gleie extended Mendham’s lead to four just before the second intermission, Roxbury, the regular season division champions, made one final frantic push. It out-shot Mendham 10-1 in the period, and got a boost 1:30 in on Nick Hefferle’s goal, before adding a power play tally by Kevin Keane to pull within two with just over a minute to go.
But thanks to the play of sophomore goaltender Connor McDonough- who was riding a two-game shutout streak coming in- Mendham contained Roxbury’s attack. McDonough stopped 18 of 20 shots in total to help his team preserve the win.
“We knew they weren’t going to quit because it was the last game,” McDonough said. “But I don’t know, I just kept going after they put some in, I knew there was a bigger meaning in winning the cup than having a shutout.”
McDonough, along with his sophomore counterparts, have started their high school careers with back-to-back cup championships.
McDonough added, “We knew we had a good freshman class with myself last year, and we knew we’d start something up with the program. That’s what we’ve been doing and we’re really excited about it.”
It will be a quick turnaround for Mendham, which will start up its state tournament play just 48 hours after winning the Halvorsen Cup on Monday night. In an ironic twist, Mendham will get to face Mountain Lakes-Boonton- the Haas Cup champion- at Mennen Arena at 8:30 p.m.
Mendham believes it is peaking at the right time with its play down the stretch as well as in the Halvorsen Cup, and with a strong defensive structure to go along with a standout netminder in McDonough, there is plenty for the team to feel good about- despite being seeded 13th in Public C.
“Hockey is such a funny world. You just keep building and building to win a cup, and then oh, you’ve got 48 hours to get ready for the state tournament,” Kovacs said. “So, we’re realistic about the state tournament. We tell them to go out and have fun and enjoy it. They’re high school kids that just won a championship. We’ll get them together tomorrow to talk about the state tournament. You have to regroup, you have to reload, and take it a period at a time. We have to play Mountain Lakes who won a cup, Rumson-Fair Haven- if we’re fortunate- won a cup, everybody in our bracket has won the cup.
“We’ll regroup tomorrow evening, and get together on Monday and keep doing what we’re doing. We’ll play our style of hockey from the net out, and see where it takes us. It’s worked pretty well so far.”
MEND — Ryan Bruin (Liam Lloyd) 1:07
MEND — Liam Lloyd (Tristan Aikenhead, Griffin Jozefek) 10:44 PPG
MEND — Stefan Michura (Tristan Aikenhead) 5:15 PPG
MEND — E.J. Gleie (Ryan Bruin, Sean Mason) 0:17
ROX — Nick Hefferle 13:30
ROX — Kevin Keane (Nick Thomas, Nick Hefferle) 1:01 PPG
Shots on goal: Mendham 23, Roxbury 20
Saves: Ryan Callahan (Roxbury) 19, Connor McDonough (Mendham) 18