With each scoreless second slipping off the clock it seemed the game's first goal could very well be its last.
After 42:07 of scoreless hockey, Sasha Pace snapped a scoreless tie with 2:53 remaining in regulation to give Hunterdon Central the lead but Ridge tied it and forced overtime 1:23 later before Scott Schnell's blast from the point found a home 7:44 into sudden-death as second-seeded Hunterdon Central stunned top-seeded Ridge, 2-1, in the final of the 8th annual Skyland Cup at Protec Ponds in Somerset.
"The puck was on the side, Grant Martin fed it back to me at the point, I walked it across, saw a lane and just ripped it on net," as Schnell played back the historic game-winning overtime goal. "Unbelievable. I can't even put it into words. I've been dreaming about this my entire life."
For Martin, Will Little, Bryce Steckroat, Travis Pupa and coach Paul Cavanaugh's group of seniors, the triumph was a monumental one marking Hunterdon Central's first Cup title in school history.
"From day one, I've gone into the gymnasium and seen this big blank spot under our ice hockey banner at school," Cavanaugh, in his fifth season as coach at the Flemington school, said. "You look at all the other teams at that school and see all the championships under their banner so be part of the first team in school history to put up a championship banner.. it can't get any better than this."
"I've been on the varsity team four years and each year we got a little closer, a little closer and finally senior year we got what we deserve," said Martin. "It's crazy. That's all."
The way Hunterdon Central goaltender Noah Dominick and his counterpart at the other end of the ice, Ridge's Chris Ambrozy were stonewalling wave after wave of offense in between the pipes, it became apparent the first mistake could be their last. So when Sasha Pace picked up a loose puck and buried it from the top of the circle to put Hunterdon Central on the board, 1-0, with less than three minutes left, many of the several hundred that were in attendance thought it was over.
"I thought that was the game right there," Cavanaugh said. "Both teams battled so hard for so long, both
goaltenders played so well, I thought the first goal was going to win it."
Ridge had other ideas, however, and just 1:23 after Pace delivered the first goal of the game, Matt
Fabiunke's shot from the point found a hole during crunch time to tie it at 1-1 with just 1:30 left to force
overtime. It was familiar territory for Hunterdon Central, which let a 2-0 lead slip away in the semifinals
before coming back to defeat Bridgewater-Raritan, 3-2, in overtime on Thursday.
"It was crazy. We got that goal, got all excited then heartbreak when they tied it up," Schnell said. "But just
like we did against Bridgewater, we went into locker room before overtime, regrouped, came out ready to go
and got it done."
With a Ridge player in the penalty box for hooking and the face-off deep in the offensive zone, Martin knew
what to do off the draw.
"I saw how their face-off guy kept winning them, so I countered, won it clean back to our D and we got a nice
shot through to the goal," Martin said. "Great players shine at the end of the game when everyone's tired
and you need it the most."
"This team battled hard. We gave up one late but never gave up," Hunterdon Central goaltender Noah
Dominick, who stood tall with 38 saves, said. "We wouldn't be here without this defense, they bailed me out
more than enough but we played our game and pulled through. We're part of school history now."
Entering the tournament, Ridge was the two-time and defending cup champion. Despite a standout 31-save
save performance from Ambrozy in net, the Basking Ridge school couldn't solve Dominick a second time.
"One goal to get to OT. We got it, got there but it didn't happen," Ridge senior Jack Mandala said.
"When we scored the whole bench went insane, we jumped up we were so happy but it was short-lived,"
Mandala said. "We tried to get bodies in front, chip it off the glass and get some fast breaks because we
were not able to dance around this team. We didn't get enough traffic. Right now, we're very upset. We're
going to move on to states and try to win that."
Ridge (18-6-1) is seeded second in the NJSIAA Public A tournament. Hunterdon Central, the fourth-seed,
improves 13-6-6. The two could meet again in the state final set for March 6 at Mennen Arena.
"Credit to all the guys I've had, both here and that have graduated," Cavanaugh said. "Their blood, sweat
and tears helped build this program from the bottom up… they're as much a part of this win as anyone."