By Mike Gurnis
NEWARK — Faced with the monumental task of killing off a five-minute major penalty late in regulation which carried over into overtime, Morris Knolls-Hills never had any doubt.
Even after surrendering both goals to Montclair on the power play, the Golden Eagles’ penalty kill was up to the challenge. Players sold out to block shots, and anything that got through to freshman goalie Elliot Marken was stopped.
It managed to kill off the entirety of the major, and shortly afterwards, it was Jason Kwestel- who previously was stopped on a penalty shot, as well as a breakaway just seconds prior- who tipped home Dylan Idland’s shot to give top seed Morris Knolls-Hills a 3-2 win over second seed Montclair in the NJSIAA Public A championship at Prudential Center.
“So proud of their perseverance,” Morris Knolls-Hills coach Tim Kepler said. “There’s no quit in this team. We haven’t quit all year. They haven’t quit since I’ve known all these kids for a long time. We knew once we killed their power play off, that we were gonna find a way to win. They had that confidence.”
It marked the second straight Public A title for Morris Knolls-Hills, and the fourth in Morris Knolls’ history, with previous titles coming in 2005 and 2014.
The game winner came after Dylan Idland collected the puck behind the net after Montclair goalie Lucas Podvey lost his stick. As he approached the top of the right circle, he ripped it towards Podvey, and Kwestel was there to tip it home for his second goal of the game, and one that Morris Knolls-Hills faithful won’t soon forget.
“Dylan Idland came out of the corner with it,” Kwestel said. “I was calling for it, but he kept coming out and he just took his shot, and I put my stick out and tried to get my stick on it. I got a piece of it, but it was all his play.”
“It was the best feeling in the world. Even after the penalty shot and the breakaway, we stayed positive. I wasn’t rattled at all and I think that really helped us stay focused and end up coming out with the chip.”
The ability to stay even-keeled throughout the game was key in this one, which saw a back-and-forth final two periods. The first period was mostly dominated by Montclair, as it held a 9-3 shot advantage and held Morris Knolls without a shot until the final 30 seconds of the period.
Freshman goalie Elliot Marken showed the poise he has shown all season, and kept his team afloat through that opening period.
“They were on us,” Kepler said. There was nothing that was a real quality shot on him. They want to get them on him since he’s a freshman. He came up with some really nice saves, controlled his rebounds, and hung us in there until we could get through our slow first period.”
Marken said, “Our team was playing hard and I knew that we had it in us to win. The second we went to overtime, I knew we were going to kill off the penalty and we were going to score, and we were going to win.. You could feel it in the locker room. Everybody had energy and then Dylan got the goal, and that was that.”
Montclair took the lead with 3:20 left in the second period as George Osterberg finished off a pass from Brett Janifer on the power play. But it took just 19 seconds for Morris Knolls-Hills to respond, as Kwestel ripped one home from the left circle to tie it up at one.
Then, Kwestel got a massive opportunity to give his team the lead with six seconds left in the second. Montclair was ruled to have covered up the puck in the crease on a scramble in front, and a penalty shot was awarded.
Kwestel was called upon to take the shot, and went in slow on Podvey, but the net-minder stayed with him and made the save.
The game stayed even until later in the third, when Jeffrey Quinn made a no-look backhand pass from behind the net- one that was reminiscent of Patrik Elias’ pass to Jason Arnott in the 2000 Stanley Cup finals- to his brother Jake in front, who buried it to give his team the lead with 6:09 left.
Just 2:01 later, Montclair scored on the power play as Brett Janifer went bar-down on Marken on the power play to tie it up.
Morris Knolls-Hills had an offensive-zone face-off in the final two minutes, and on the ensuing play, Jake DiLoreto was called for boarding, and a five-minute major was called, putting the Golden Eagles behind the 8-ball.
But like it has the entire postseason, its penalty killers embraced the role of sacrificing their bodies to block shots, and did all it could to limit Montclair’s chances. Once it killed off the remaining 1:41 of regulation, it had a nice 15-minute break to rest and recompose before overtime.
Once it got to overtime, it just had to focus on the 3:19 remaining of penalty time ahead of it.
“Get the puck down the ice, get the fresh legs on the ice and keep doing that until we kill it off,” Kwestel said of his team’s penalty-killing strategy. “I feel like after we killed off the penalty we had all the momentum and it was only a matter of time before we scored.”
It was infinitely more dramatic than last year’s 6-1 blowout win over Hillsborough in this same game, and the thrilling conclusion made it that much sweeter.
“One of the first things I said to them- for the ones that were here last year- last year was awesome, I’m not taking it away,” Kepler said. “But it’s a big difference between winning one in overtime, and winning 6-1 and having a few-goal cushion at the end. It’s amazing. I’m so proud of them. They’ve worked their butts off and they’ve earned this.”
Kwestel added, “It feels amazing. I don’t think there’s any better feeling in the world.”
MONT — George Osterberg (Brett Janifer, Adam Peiffer) 3:20 PPG
MKH — Jason Kwestel (Andrew Ryan) 3:01
MKH — Jake Quinn (Jeffrey Quinn) 6:09
MONT — Brett Janifer (Kellum Foster-Palmer) 4:08 PPG
MKH — Jason Kwestel (Dylan Idland) 10:26
Shots on goal: Morris Knolls-Hills 28, Montclair 28
Saves: Elliot Marken (MKH) 26, Lucas Podvey (MONT) 25