Growing Pope John team looks to learn from 2-2 tie with St. Joseph (Mont.)

Pope John battles to a 2-2 tie with St. Joseph of Montvale on Wednesday. (Mike Gurnis | The Morris-Sussex Hockey Report)

By Mike Gurnis

STOCKHOLM — Learning how to win games is always the biggest challenge for a young team.

For Pope John, the Lions have gone through two-straight difficult seasons, including a 2-5-2 campaign during a COVID-19 abbreviated season last winter. But in that shortened season, it went in with perhaps the youngest team in the Gordon Conference, with several freshmen and sophomores playing key roles.

The growing pains are still going to be there this season with just two seniors on the roster and with a young group that still needs to learn to close out games. It showed its ability to do so last week in a season-opening 3-2 win over Princeton Day on the road, before a tough 5-2 loss to Seton Hall Prep on Monday.

On Wednesday night, it went toe-to-toe with a strong St. Joseph of Montvale squad. Despite taking the lead with two goals in the second period, it surrendered the tying goal early in the third. It controlled play for most of the remainder of the game but was unable to finish on its chances, as it earned a 2-2 tie with St. Joseph at Skylands Ice World.

It’s a game a young team will look to learn from, especially after letting a lead slip away early in the third period.

“It’s a top team in the state, a top Gordon (Conference) team,” Pope John coach Ryan Brown said. “All of the Gordon games are like this. They’re all tight, they’re all physical, they’re all fast. Two good teams, the tie, nobody’s satisfied with that. They’re not and we’re not. But I think our guys responded versus the Seton Hall game on Monday, which was a little bit flat for us. I liked our energy much better tonight.”

Brown also said, “Even though we gave that early one in the third, I thought we responded and I thought we outplayed them in the third, shots were 9-3 us. We have to get some better quality chances, and I’d like to see our guys shoot the puck a little bit more. We’re a little bit pass happy, we got pucks in the slot and we looked to make that one extra pass. I think moving forward that’s something we’ll be working on.”

Pope John trailed, 1-0 after a fairly even first period on a goal from St. Joseph’s Garrett Kata. It came out much stronger in the second period, as Jake Stevens finished off a pretty passing play from Nathan Meola and Matt Hughes just 4:47 in to tie the game.

Then, Stevens made a nice stretch pass to spring Emporio Iencio for a breakaway, which he buried to give the Lions the lead late in the second.

“First period was pretty tough for us, we didn’t come out too strong,” Stevens, a sophomore, said. “Coach came in the locker room and told us to get our feet moving. We just came out that second period moving quick, getting pucks to the net, back to basics. And we put a couple of in there.”

The balance on the team has been a welcome sight through the team’s first three games. In total, nine players have found the scoresheet, with Stevens leading the way with four points. Hughes, Iencio, Meola, and Declan Murphy each have two points thus far.

It also has a reliable goaltender in junior Tyler Paluzzi, who made 20 saves in Wednesday’s game.

“We like to play what we call Sussex County hockey,” Paluzzi said. “It’s more about being hard on the forecheck, getting on other guys nerves and working so hard that other teams don’t want to play against us. That’s how we won the Princeton Day game, we played another scrappy team here tonight, and really getting it going. 

Paluzzi added, “We’re a team where, you look at the other rosters and you see all the D-1 commits, we’re a team that just isn’t there. For us, it’s more about giving the perfect effort rather than having a perfect game.”

Through three games, it’s hard to tell just how far this Pope John team can go this season. But what it has shown is considerable growth from last year to this year, and if it can continue that growth, it’s a group that hopes to be in contention for the Gordon Conference-National Division title.

That’s the level this program wants to get back to after the first two years, and it appears to at the very least be on its way to doing so thus far.

“When my class was brought in as freshman, that was kind of our goal,” Paluzzi said. “We were kind of the building blocks, the core that was supposed to bring us back up. We full expect to capitalize on that. We want to be a Top 5 team in the state consistently. We want to win the Gordon National every year. For us, a lot of people put us down in the beginning of the year, but everyone in that locker room feels that year is now.”

THEY SAID IT
“Freshman year I played sparingly. I got really going in states, and I felt coming into the next year that I had to bring that. But last year with COVID, I feel I didn’t play up to my standards. Coming in this year especially now that I’m a junior, I’m a team captain and a leader on this team. I knew that my game in net was what was going to reflect on the rest of the guys. If we wanted to have a good year, I was going to have to get through it with some good play in the back end to make sure we could pucks in the back of the net.”– Goatlender Tyler Paluzzi on his start to the season.

“The Princeton Day game was a nice win for us on the road against a very good team. We’re young. We only have two seniors. We have some freshmen playing key roles in key spots. We have a good junior and sophomore class, and those guys have been here for 2-3 years, so they know what to expect playing Gordon every night. They know what the Delbarton’s are like, the Bosco’s, CBA’s, they know what those teams are and how hard we have to work. We know that for us to have a chance in any game, we need good goaltending, we need to be stiff to play against, and we just need to be a tough team to play against.”– Coach Ryan Brown on the team’s growth.

THREE STARS
First star: Jake Stevens, Pope John, D, So.: 1G, 1A
Second star: Nick Wronski, St. Joseph’s, G, Jr.: 23 saves
Third period: Tyler Paluzzi, Pope John, G, Jr.: 20 saves

SCORING SUMMARY
First period
SJR– Garrett Kata 6:16
Second period
PJ– Jake Stevens (Matt Hughes, Nathan Meola) 10:13
PJ– Emporio Iencio (Jake Stevens, Declan Murphy) 4:23
Third period
SJR– Dylan Stiles (Brian Atwell, Matthew DiCarlo) 12:29

Shots on goal: Pope John 25, St. Joseph (Mont.) 22
Saves: Tyler Paluzzi (Pope John) 20, Nick Wronski (SJR) 23
Team records: Pope John 1-1-1, St. Joseph (Mont.) 1-1-1

E-mail Mike Gurnis at michaelgurnis@gmail.com.

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