By Mike Gurnis
MORRIS TOWNSHIP — The wait was finally over for Roxbury.
After an offseason of uncertainty as to whether or not there would even be an ice hockey season due to the COVID-19 pandemic, teams across the state finally took the ice on Friday for the start of the 2021 season- almost six weeks later than it normally would start.
And for Roxbury’s nine seniors, it was as good of a start as could be expected.
Roxbury rolled to a solid 4-o season-opening win over West Morris at Mennen Arena, as all four goals were scored by Roxbury’s seniors- including two from captain Nick Thomas.
“We have nine seniors on our team, so it especially means a lot to that group who were wondering if they were going to have their season, or not have their season,” Roxbury coach Jon Benbow said. “I think for this group especially, since we have such a senior-heavy team, it really means a lot to us to have this chance to play.”
Going into the season, Roxbury had question marks on offense, after graduating three of its top four goal-scorers after finishing first in the Halvorsen Division regular season standings. Thomas, a senior, was the known commodity after tallying 15 goals and 16 assists last season.
But after a slow start to the game, seniors Joe Eible and Jake Kooyenga scored in a span of 1:48 to put Roxbury up 2-0. It was believed to be the first career varsity goals for both, and was a bit of a sigh of relief for a team that wasn’t sure where it would get goals from.
“I think we were a little slow to wake up and get going,” Benbow said. “I guess maybe that’s expected- we haven’t had a scrimmage yet. The only thing we’ve had is intrasquad scrimmages, so I guess I kind of expected it to take us a little while to get the competitive juices flowing again. I was happy with what I saw, and obviously there’s a lot of little things we can work on. I was happy with our offensive output.
“I think one of our big question marks is, where are goals going to come from? We graduated three of our top four goal scorers. We were going into the season kind of wondering where the goals were going to come from, and to have our first line have the output it did today was a relief as a coach, to know there were goals out there to be had.”
Then, Thomas made his presence felt in the second and third periods to put the game out of reach. Senior Kyle Jenkins made a nice cross-ice pass to Thomas at the left circle on the power play, and Thomas ripped the shot top shelf to extend the advantage to three early in the second. He then capped the scoring early in the third period with his second of the game.
“(He played) fantastic. He was maybe the one we knew coming into this season that we knew had the ability to be a goal scorer,” Benbow said. “Maybe there was some question that he’d be able to produce without the talent that he had around him, but I really thought he carried that first line. He made really smart decisions with the puck for the most part. Nick’s a finisher. He knows how to put the puck in the back of the net and knows how to be in the right place for those loose pucks. I think it was just reassuring to know that we’ll be able to count on Nick for some goals this season, because we’ll certainly need it.”
Senior goalie Ryan Callahan turned aside all 13 shots for Roxbury, which out-shot West Morris, 22-13.
THREE STARS OF THE GAME
First Star: Nick Thomas, Roxbury: 2 goals, 1 assist
Second Star: Joe Eible, Roxbury: Game-winning goal
Third Star: Ryan Callahan, Roxbury: 13 save shutout
ROX — Joe Eible (Jake Calanni) 4:34
ROX — Jake Kooyenga (Nick Thomas) 2:46
ROX — Nick Thomas (Kyle Jenkins) 13:51 PPG
ROX — Nick Thomas 13:01
Shots on goal: Roxbury 22, West Morris 13
Saves: Phil Togno (WMC) 18, Ryan Callahan (Roxbury) 13.