By Mike Gurnis
MORRIS TWP. — With its backs against the wall in terms of qualifying for the state tournament this week, Morristown-Beard coach Scott Greene made a lineup change that few could have expected.
The move, was to switch standout two-way defenseman Noah Jones from his normal spot on the blue line, to suddenly become the team’s first-line center.
In the two games since that switch, Morristown-Beard has reaped the benefits of a deeper forward group. It erupted for seven goals in a win over St. Peter’s Prep on Wednesday to snap a five-game winless streak.
Then, on Friday, its depth players came through, as Dylan Strauss- now skating on the team’s third line- recorded two goals and an assist to help the Crimson earn a much-needed 4-0 win over Chatham at Mennen Arena.
Freshman Casey Connor stopped all 28 shots he faced to record his first career shutout.
Morristown-Beard improved to 10-11-1 with the win, and stands just one game below .500. It must be .500 or better before the Feb. 13 cutoff in order to automatically qualify for the state tournament. The Crimson have a tough test against Livingston on Monday, before taking on Randolph in the Mennen Cup semfinals on Wednesday in its last two games before the cutoff. While it would likely be in good shape to qualify with an at-large bid (teams within four games of .500 can apply for such), it doesn’t want to leave its tournament hopes in anyone’s hands but its own.
“It feels great, to be honest,” Strauss said. “We knew coming into these past recent couple of games that every game is a playoff game for us at this point. I’m proud to say of our team that we played like it tonight. There was a real sense of urgency from all the boys. It’s good to get this one off our back but it’s on to Monday. That’s all it’s about now.”
Strauss, who shifted down to the third line after Jones was moved to top line center, has taken the lineup shift in stride, and scored two highlight reel goals in the third period to help his team pull away for the win.
“At the end of the day, I just want the team to win,” Strauss said. “If that means I’m playing third line, defense, goalie, I don’t really care. If we just win, that’s great. When Noah moves to center, that’s what coach thinks is best and it’s totally fine by me.”
Morristown-Beard controlled most of the offensive zone play in the first period, but was unable to get on the board thanks to a couple of impressive saves by Chatham goalie Michael Park. In the last meeting between these teams- a 3-1 Morristown-Beard win on Dec. 17- Park made 47 saves, so the Crimson knew it would have its hands full in this one.
“It’s definitely a little intimidating,” Connor said of his opposition in the other crease. “The last game, I remember (Park) made like 50 saves. Going into it, I knew that was the game I had to face. Maybe not as many shots, but a lot of quality ones, because I knew he was going to show up so I had to show up as well.”
It took until 4:05 remaining in the second for Morristown-Beard to break through, as Peter Cross put home the rebound of Billy Moloney’s initial shot which went off the post.
It had to deal with some adversity pretty shortly after, when Noah Jones was called for a five-minute major for head contact. But Morristown-Beard’s penalty kill unit got the job done, thanks to some key saves from Connor. Just two minutes after it killed off the remainder of the penalty in the third period, Noah Jones scored to double the lead and officially swung all of the momentum back in its favor.
“Guys were pretty frustrated in the first period,” Connor said. “But we just reset and we came back. We got a goal and it gave us a little bit of life. I think when you have life in hockey, good things can happen. Even with the five minute we had to kill off, we knew we were fine. We knew if we’d just bear down, play our game and we’d be good.”
The first career shutout was something Connor hoped would have come earlier in the season, but nonetheless it was an exciting night for the freshman who certainly appears to be Morristown-Beard’s future in goal.
“It feels great. I couldn’t have done it without the guys,” Connor said. “They played so great in front of me. I think it feels amazing. I’d thought about it a couple of times before, but it feels great to finally get it. Especially since it’s against my hometown. It feels awesome overall, and hopefully we can keep the momentum going into Monday.”
Now, Morristown-Beard will look to continue its winning ways when it takes on one of the state’s top public school teams in Livingston on Monday. It lost, 4-3 in the previous meeting between the schools on Jan. 8, but it knows the stakes are much higher this time with its state playoff hopes hanging in the balance.
“We’re feeling good,” Strauss said. “Obviously there are a few things we could touch up on and improve on. But it’s good to get a couple of wins strung together since we’ve struggled with that. But to get a couple of wins and hopefully we just continue this on to Monday and keep it going.”
MB — Peter Cross (Billy Moloney, Dylan Strauss) 4:05
MB — Noah Jones (Hollis Humphries, Billy Moloney) 9:06
MB — Dylan Strauss (Jack Scordley) 7:48
MB — Dylan Strauss (Hutch McDonald, Kevin McIntyre) 2:05
Shots on goal: Chatham 28, Morristown-Beard 27
Saves: Casey Connor (Morristown-Beard) 28, Michael Park (Chatham) 23
Team records: Morristown-Beard 10-11-1 (5-3 Mennen), Chatham 5-13-1 (2-6 Mennen)