It was beyond the midway point of the third period in Tuesday’s NJSIAA Public A state semifinal between old hockey playoff foes Randolph and Ridge at the Codey Arena, and the favored Rams, shooting for their fifth-straight appearance in the state finals at the Prudential Center, were staring at a heartbreaking defeat.
The Rams did everything right over the first 40-plus minutes of the contest, collecting far more scoring chances and shots on goal while dominating possession of the puck.
There was only one problem. Randolph trailed 1-0.
Ridge scored a first-period goal on its first and only shot of the period. Ben Raff put the puck behind Randolph netminder Andrew Holowka at the 6:45 mark of the first period and that was it.
“We were outshooting them and outplaying them,” veteran Randolph head coach Rich McLaughlin said. “We were getting our chances, but we weren’t doing a good job of converting.”
After one period, the shot totals were in favor of Randolph, 6-1. After two periods, the total was 15-3. Ridge seemed very content to sit on the one-goal lead and live with it.
“We needed a little more effort in the third,” McLaughlin said.
Was there concern?
“My heart was racing a lot,” McLaughin said. “Sometimes, you don’t get that tying goal. It happens. You have to keep working hard.”
However, the players were not as worried as the head coach.
“We just had to keep on putting the puck deep and going after it,” said Noah Leinwand, whose goal tied the game with 6:49 remaining in regulation. “There were no worries. Honestly, we all knew we could do it. We have been there before and know what to do.”
After Leinwand’s goal, momentum was clearly on the Rams’ side heading into the extra session.
In overtime, it was Mitch Gaudioso who played the role of hero, knocking in the rebound of a Mike Slavin shot from the point just 1:34 into the extra session, giving the Rams the hard-fought 2-1 victory and yet another appearance at a state final at the hockey mecca of New Jersey on Saturday afternoon.
“We knew we were going to get that goal,” said Gaudioso, who alertly knocked the dancing puck past Ridge goalie Rob Fenton for the game-winner. “That’s what Randolph hockey is all about. We never give up. We know if we keep taking shots, eventually one’s going to go in. We knew we had it in us to get one more goal.”
But there was certainly nothing easy about it, even if the Rams out-shot the Red Devils, 27-10.
“They’re a good team and they always play us pretty well,” McLaughlin said. “We were ready for what they were going to throw at us. We just had to stay focused and play with the same effort.”
McLaughlin seemed to think that Leinwand’s goal was the big one.
“I think that took a lot of pressure off us,” McLaughlin said. “We just had to make sure we didn’t give up one. It’s hard in overtime, because anything can happen, but we got better effort in the third period and I liked our chances.”
The Rams certainly had their early chances. Stefan Tammingo made a steal in the first period and skated alone in on Fenton, but his shot sailed over the crossbar with four minutes left in the period.
In the second period, Chris Holowka had a breakaway attempt that Fenton cut down the angle and made the save. Gaudioso had a chance with three minutes left in the second, but his backhand attempt off a rebound went wide right.
That’s what the Rams were for the first 40 minutes, making a pass a hair too long and shooting the puck just a tad wide, while Fenton was collected 26 saves, several of which were excellent stops.
Leinwand had a backhand try that Fenton made a sliding save with nine minutes left, then made the heroic play to save the day three minutes later.
Andrew Holowka made nine saves in goal for the victorious Rams, who move on once again to the state title game to face either Livingston or Bridgewater Raritan, which faced off in Tuesday’s other semifinal.
“It’s been our goal all year,” Leinwand said. “Everyone said we couldn’t do it, but we’re there.”
“It’s my third time in three tries,” Gaudioso said. “No one thought we had a chance, but we believed.”
McLaughlin likes the makeup of his club, a team that has only three seniors.
“A lot of them have never been part of this,” McLaughlin said. “This will all be new to them.”
But it’s a good old hat for the coach, who will now make his fifth straight Public A state title appearance and the 10th in the last 13 years.
Even if things didn’t exactly look rosy for most of Tuesday afternoon.