By Mike Gurnis
It was all about the next man up mentality for Chatham.
The Cougars, who have not played with its full lineup since early December, were in a tough position going into Saturday night’s Mennen Cup semifinal. It was going to be without the services of its two top scorers and most dynamic players in Matt Nacinovich and Nikita Koneyvch.
Chatham’s depth was going to be tested. Fortunately for the Cougars, it passed with flying colors.
Ronan Curry netted the game-winning goal with 6:08 left in the third period to propel second-seeded Chatham to a 4-3 win over third-seeded Morris Knolls-Hills in the Mennen Cup semifinals at Mennen Arena.
The win sent Chatham to the Mennen Cup final for the first time since 2015, where it will take on top-seeded Randolph on Wednesday at 5:45 p.m. It will be the first Mennen Cup final appearance of coach Brendon Herr’s eight-year career.
“It shows how deep we are,” Ronan Curry said. “It says that its next man up and what our mentality is. Today, everyone in that second and third line got bumped up to bigger roles, definitely stepped up.”
Curry’s goal capped off a wild third period, which Chatham saw a 3-1 lead evaporate on goals from Luke Dickerson and Jake McCloud in the opening five minutes to tie it up for Knolls-Hills. The go-ahead goal also came just 44 seconds after Knolls-Hills had appeared to take the lead, as a puck went off a player in front and in.
Replays from the Morris Sussex Sports broadcast showed the puck hitting the glove of a Knolls-Hills player in front, and due to that the goal was disallowed after a lengthy discussion among the referees.
Chatham went from potentially trailing, to having the lead in that short period of time. Isaac Suh, who was playing in his first game since early December, brought the puck up ice and fed it to Doyle Curry to spring a 2-on-1 in front. The defenseman over-commited to Doyle, who made a behind-the-back pass to his brother Ronan who was all alone in front.
“When they got their goal disallowed, we all came back to the bench since they were all going crazy for like five minutes, so we regrouped there,” Ronan Curry said. “We turned around and said this is our game and our opportunity, and right now we can’t let it slip away from us. That right there was the turning point.”
The first two periods went about as well as could be expected for Chatham. It got a major boost with Suh’s return to the lineup after missing two months, which helped offset the losses of Koneyvch and Nacinovich. He got Chatham on the board early with a goal just 2:55 into the game to give his team the lead.
“I don’t think that could’ve been a better start, honestly,” Ronan Curry said of Suh. “Last year, Matt (Nacinovich), Isaac and I played together for five games before I got hurt. Then this year we played for two games together before (Suh) got hurt, and Matt wasn’t here today. It was great to get Isaac back, and for the three of us (against Randolph) it’ll be the first time we’re playing together in a long time and I like our chances a lot.”
Suh added, “I think that says a lot about our team. We’re so close that when two or three guys are out, everyone else can kind of step in and play each other’s roles. We can really help each other out.”
Jake McCloud scored five minutes later for Knolls-Hills to tie the game up. Midway through the second, though, Chatham took control when Doyle Curry scored just seconds after hitting the post. Ryan Burke added a power play tally in the final minute, and it held a two-goal advantage going into the third.
Morris Knolls-Hills was not without its opportunities, though. Shortly after it tied the game in the third, it got a power play, and while Chatham was on the penalty kill, a player appeared to hit Knolls-Hills goalie Aidan Marvin from behind. It was a potential 5-on-3 opportunity, but a roughing call was also given to Knolls-Hills for retaliating, wiping out the potential for a two-man advantage.
Then with 2:25 to go, Chatham goalie Nate May (29 saves) came up with a save on Jake McCloud’s breakaway opportunity. Knolls-Hills then had a power play with 1:22 left and opted to pull Marvin to make it a 6-on-4, but Chatham’s penalty kill came through to secure the win.
It was certainly an eventful evening, which always is to be expected when these two teams get together. Chatham won the first regular season meeting, 5-4 on a dramatic late goal, before the teams played to a 1-1 tie just 10 days ago.
“We knew tonight wasn’t going to be easy,” Herr said. “Even with the two-goal lead going into the third, we said to our guys that we better come out and keep playing. I think we fell asleep there for five minutes. We stopped making plays and it almost looked like we were playing not to lose the game. We got that bounce there and I think it turned the momentum a little bit, which was good. Nate made some unbelievable saves down here in the last four or five minutes to keep us in it.”
Now, Chatham has the opportunity to do something on Wednesday that it hasn’t done in 42 years- win a Mennen Cup title.
It’s almost unfathomable that it has been that long for a program that is always one of the better teams in the state, but that speaks to the sheer depth in talent of the Mennen Division. It feels good about its chances, too, knowing that for the first time in over two months, it will have its full roster- including Koneyvch and Nacinovich.
“(It shows) depth, for sure, but I think it’s just the belief,” Herr said. “It doesn’t matter who’s in the lineup every night. You have 20 guys that believe in each other and believe we can get this done.”
Ronan Curry added, “Every year Chatham is one of the best public teams in the state. I don’t know how it’s been 42 years since we won this thing. I think it’d be good for us to be the team, and go into the Public playoffs if we’re that team that gets the first one in 42 years. That’s a sign of nothing but good things to come.”
CHA — Isaac Suh (Ronan Curry) 12:05
MKH — Jake McCloud (Alan Williams, Ryan Nevins) 7:34
CHA — Doyle Curry (Ronan Curry) 6:24
CHA — Ryan Burke (Doyle Curry, Luc D’Costa) PPG 0:50
MKH — Luke Dickerson 12:16
MKH — Jake McCloud (Michael Simone) 10:48
CHA — Ronan Curry (Doyle Curry, Isaac Suh) 6:08
Shots on goal: Morris Knolls-Hills 32, Chatham 20
E-mail Mike Gurnis at firstname.lastname@example.org
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