Today marks a momentous occasion in Monmouth and Ocean County ice hockey history, as the initial pucks will be dropped on the inaugural Shore Conference Tournament.
Since 2002, in place of the 16-team, single-elimination format that was adopted for this 2013-14 campaign, qualified teams were split into separate brackets with eight clubs bidding for the Handchen Cup (an award that has been in circulation since 1986 and only made exclusive to Shore Conference competitors in 2002) while eight more battled to claim to the Dowd Cup (an accolade introduced in 2002 and named after former Brick Dragons star and 1994-95 Stanley Cup champion Jim Dowd).
And in a season where the best word to describe this SCT field is “parity,” it should make for an exciting run to the finals, which are to be held on Saturday, Feb. 22, at 7 p.m. at Middletown Ice World.
Red Bank Catholic rebounded from an uncharacteristic record of 7-15-3 a season ago to claim the top seed after posting an overall mark of 15-1-2 through Tuesday evening (12-0-1 against Shore Conference opponents).
“Our team chemistry has improved immensely,” Caseys coach Ken Carlson said, “and that comes with our young guys getting more experience at the varsity level and stepping up when they’ve needed to.”
However, what seems to separate Red Bank Catholic from the majority of this field is roster depth.
“Due to our guys’ involvement with various area clubs, I think we’ve had our full roster for only two or three games this year,” Carlson said. “We’ve dressed 24 of 25 guys this season and they’ve matured at this level quickly.”
Red Bank Catholic enters the SCT with one of the area’s top goaltenders, Mike Cosentino, and goal scorers, Evan Hoey, and plays host to No. 16-seeded Jackson Liberty this afternoon at 3 p.m. at the Red Bank Armory.
Second-seeded Brick will also be in action this afternoon and is scheduled to host a tough No. 15 seed in Manalapan at 2:45 p.m. at the Ocean Ice Palace.
This feisty Braves team has been carried by its top-line duo of Mike Lisciandro (24g, 27a) and Parker Gaglione (13g, 32a) to regular-season victories over SCT No. 3 Freehold Township and No. 5 Middletown North, a fact recognized by 51-year Brick coach Bob Auriemma, whose Dragons are getting hot and healthy at the right time.
“You have to go out and play whoever is in front of you,” Auriemma said, “and you can never be overconfident because anything can happen. You can have some bad bounces or run into a hot goalie and that can change everything.”
Thankfully for the Dragons, net-minder Jake Lampiasi is on such a streak, allowing only seven goals in his last four starts, while Brick’s leading forward Andrew Reiss has delivered 34 points in 11 games since returning from a mild concussion and a bruised sternum suffered on opening night.
“Jake is coming in on a nice hot streak,” Auriemma said. “We’re very pleased with his play . . . and we’re getting Andrew back fully healthy at the right time. But it’s never one or two guys in these games, it comes down to team play.”
Team-play is an aspect of the game the Dragons have excelled in this season, as two-way defenseman David Kearns, who was recently named a co-MVP of Class A South, as well as wingers Brian Lange and Ryan Mooney have helped keep Brick’s ship righted in Reiss’ absence by combining for 131 points.
Fourth-seeded Point Boro will have the later game at Ocean Ice Palace and is scheduled to take on No. 13 seed and Class B South division rival Wall at 5 p.m.
Point Boro, which is led by a top line of Steven Kovaleski (51 points), Owen Herrington (49 points), and Chris McDermott (45 points), will meet Wall for the fourth time this season, with the Panthers owning the season series with a record of 2-0-1, as the most recent battle ended in a 4-4 tie.
“We edged them out 2-1 at the beginning of the season and got the better of them 8-1 in the Winding River Holiday Tournament,” said Panthers coach Alex DePalma. “But then they played us to a tie where we had to come back from a 4-1 deficit. They’re our arch rivals, and both teams always give their best when we meet. We expect another good one here.”
Also on the opening round today is No. 11 Toms River East and Charlie Mule, who leads the Shore Conference with 37 goals, traveling to No. 6 Howell, a Rebels team that knocked off CBA back on Jan. 17, in a 7:30 p.m. start at Howell Ice World.
Also today, No. 9 Ocean — a team that has three of the Shore Conference’s top four scorers in Andrew and Matt Schulz and David Newcomb — play No. 8 Jackson Memorial at 8:15 p.m., and seventh-seeded St. Rose hosts No. 10 Southern at 8:30 p.m. Both games take place at Jersey Shore Arena.
First-round competition will continue on Thursday when No. 5 Middletown North hosts No. 12 Rumson-Fair Haven at 3:45 p.m. at Middletown Ice World, and conclude on Friday evening at Jersey Shore Arena when No. 3 Freehold Township takes on No. 14 Monsignor Donovan at 8:30 p.m.