MIDDLETOWN – Middletown North (2-0-0) saw the puck dropped on its NJSIAA Public B title defense Tuesday night in front of capacity congregation at Middletown Ice World, and played to an emotional 4-3 victory over crosstown rival Middletown South (0-1-0) in what can only be described as a playoff atmosphere.
“It’s great to play in this sort of atmosphere so early in the season,” Lions captain and 2014-15 Conference Player of the Year Bobby Hampton said. “Every time we play South we know it’s going to be a competitive game in front of all our family and friends, so we always try and play our best game.”
“These past couple of weekends South played our football team and beat them, so we knew we had to respond tonight,” Hampton added. “All our football boys were out there tonight, so this one was for them.”
The Lions – ranked No. 2 in the APP Pre-season Top 10 Poll – jumped out to an early one-goal lead in the opening period when Hampton, a Chicago Steele (United States Hockey League) signee, carried into the offensive zone, pulled the puck through the legs of a defender, shimmied past the second Middletown South blue liner, and whipped a wrist shot over the blocker of Eagles freshman netminder Clay Simonsen, who made 18 saves in his varsity debut.
Simonsen had a momentary lapse minutes later, when a weak wrist shot by sophomore Kyle Goworak was flipped on net from the blue line and squirted past the freshman, as the Lions took a 2-0 lead into the second period.
Lions captain Kevin Felice extended the lead to three goals with his team-leading third tally of the year, racing down the wing on the two-on-one and chipping home a cross-crease pass from Khristian Acosta, the Quinnipiac University commit’s second assist of the game.
However, the Lions comfortable lead was soon cut to just one goal, as the Eagles – ranked No. 5 in the APP Pre-season Top 10 Poll – came storming back in the final 10 minutes of the middle frame.
Middletown South took advantage of a poor defensive pinch, and broke out of the zone on a two-on-one rush, as sophomore Dakota Yanabelli put an initial shot on net that was kicked away by Lions keeper Anthony Manfredi, but the rebound was cleaned up by classmate Craig Bahrs, shrinking the lead to 3-1.
After Middletown North killed off a five-on-three Eagles power play, Middletown South continued to build momentum, and with sustained puck possession used another odd-man rush to cut the deficit to one goal, when sophomore Deven Ralph crashed the net and cleaned up a rebound at 10:31 of the second, which caused a scuffle in the crease and Manfredi’s helmet to be removed, resulting in minor five minor penalties (three for the Lions, two for the Eagles).
Middletown North carried its one-goal lead out of the intermission and 51 seconds into the third extended the count to 4-2, when Hampton won an offensive zone faceoff forward, settled the puck in front of crease, drawing Simonsen across, and flicked a pass to the backdoor where Tomassetti swatted home his second of the year.
It proved to be a pivotal goal when the Eagles cut the lead to 4-3 with 18 seconds remaining in regulation on a Dan Berkowitz marker with Simonsen pulled from the crease.
“I think we underestimated South a little bit,” Tomassetti said. “We got that two goal lead and sort of took our foot off the gas. Leadership in the locker room kind of picked us up and got us going for the third period. We’re proud to get our school a win.”
First Star: Lions senior captain Bobby Hampton gets the first star after opening the scoring in the first period and helping to build the Middletown North lead to two goals in the third period, assisting on a Tomassetti tally.
Second Star: Tomassetti lands the second star after delivering the game-winning goal, and could have two more, as the senior rang a pair of shots off the crossbar.
Third Star: Craig Bahrs, Deven Ralph, and Dan Berkowitz share the third star after helping the Eagles charge back into this meeting with their first goals of the year.
Up next: Middletown North travels to Manalapan on Tuesday, Dec. 8 at 6:15 p.m., while Middletown South heads Jackson Liberty on Thursday, Dec. 3 at 8:15 p.m.