Middletown North Takes Public B Crown In State Finals Redemption
The Middletown North Lions know what it's like to take the ice at Prudential Center. Almost a year ago to date, they skated against the Northern Highlands Highlanders for the Public B crown. The odds were not in their favor for that game, but the added motivation to avenge their title loss was more than enough to get them over the hump this year. A rematch of last year seemed likely, before the fourth seeded Chatham Cougars took down the defending champion and tournament favorite Highlanders in the semifinals without one of their top players. This set up a highly anticipated matchup between two teams that have consistently been among the top in the state all season long.
The first period was dominated by Middletown North. The Lions came out blazing and changed the scoreboard from zero to one just as fast as they were playing. Andrew Gross would corral a puck in the neutral zone, before zipping it up ice to Lachlan Haeger. The defenseman would go on an offensive attack, cutting across the top of the circles before rifling a shot that found its way through Chatham goaltender Nate May. Chatham then got a shot of momentum added by a Haeger cross-checking penalty. North goaltender Luke Chrzan would stand tall and receive some help from his defenseman with a few blocked shots. With just over three minutes left in the period, Gross would take a sharp angle at the net and slide a puck through May’s legs that just careened wide off the post. Haeger would come inches away from his second, after crashing the net off a give-and-go at the point and tipping the shot just over the crossbar.
The first period was full of high-paced, heavy hitting action. While play was controlled by the Lions, the Cougars got a few chances early. Both student sections took up multiple sections throughout Prudential Center, and the crowd was going wild over every hit, chance, and blocked shot. The energy was electric and it translated into the play.
Chatham came out firing after the second period, and Middletown North was not ready for the sudden barrage. The Cougars had a few good looks early, with Matthew Nacinovich running a high cycle from below the red line into the high slot, generating grade-A opportunities. The consistency of their system would pay off, with Nacinovich moving the puck off the half wall to Isaac Suh below the goal line. Suh took the puck around the net, drawing the net-front defender to him before sliding a puck across the slot to an awaiting Ronan Curry who fired a fully winded one-timer past Chrzan. Around a minute later, Haeger would take another trip to the box for cross-checking; however, this time he would be out almost as fast as he got in. Nacinovich won the offensive zone faceoff back to Doyle Curry at the point, who walked in and allowed a Luc D’Costa set screen to take the puck out of Chrzan’s view. Doyle would send a low wrister through Chrzan’s five-hole, giving the Cougars a 2-1 lead and putting both Curry twins on the board with a goal each on the night.
Middletown North would answer before the end of the period, knotting the game at two going into the second intermission. Joey Wall found his home along the boards, walking down the boards and making a Cougar defender miss before snapping a shot under May’s glove from a sharp angle.
The third period was more back-and-forth, but Middletown North settled into a rhythm towards the end of the period. After killing off some big penalties, the eventual game winner would be a goal that made you scratch your head. Who else but Lions’ Gross cut inside a defender on a one-on-one, before being bumped away from the puck while Chatham goaltender May sent it to the corner. While everyone on the ice was looking for the potential interference penalty, Gross went into the corner to retrieve the puck and threw it in front of the net. This bizarre sequence ended with Middletown North forward Christopher Imbriale getting the toe of his blade on the puck and redirecting it past an unsuspecting Nate May.
Chatham would get a power play with just over three minutes to play in regulation, and Nacinovich set up numerous high danger attempts that were denied by Chrzan or blocked by a defender. The Lions would hang on and finally claim the crown they have been in contention for the last two seasons.
Middletown North will lose key members of this team, including Gross, Chrzan, and Haeger. They do have a good amount of returning experience, headlined by top forwards Wall and Jack Turner. Replacing Chrzan in goal will be the biggest challenge they face, but expect the Lions to return next season as contenders in the Shore and Public B brackets.
For Chatham, this is a big case of what-if. They lost in the finals by a goal after giving the state one of the bigger upsets this season with their semifinals win over Northern Highlands. This was all without star sophomore defenseman Nikita Konevych, who is without a doubt one of the state’s best. The New Hampshire commit was given a DQ following the conclusion of a quarterfinals win over Summit after video was reviewed of a post-game scrum. This disqualified Konevych for not only the semifinals, but also the finals since he did not serve any time during the Summit game. Chatham returns a large part of their roster, including Nacinovich, Suh, and potentially Konevych if he is still playing club hockey in New Jersey. They will need to make up for the loss of the Curry twins, May, and defenseman Ryan Burke to rebuild the depth that made them so dangerous this season on top of two star players.
These two teams have a high probability of seeing each other at some point again next season, and it will be another outstanding game between two quality programs. Middletown North will start their first state championship defense since the 2015 season when the winter season comes around next year.
1st Star - Andrew Gross (Middletown North)
2nd Star - Luke Chrzan (Middletown North)
3rd Star - Christopher Imbriale (Middletown North)