WEST ORANGE, NJ – After playing Westfield a trio of previous times this season and winning all three contests by a combined sore of 11-3 — including a 3-0 victory exactly a week ago in the Union County Cup Final — the Summit High School Boys Varsity Hockey Team appeared to have the road map for success against the Blue Devils.
In the McInnis Cup Final at Richard J. Codey Arena, for reasons that will likely will remain a mystery, the Hilltoppers didn’t follow that map and got lost, appearing disorientated in a first period that saw them fall behind 4-1. And, while they got their car back on the highway in the second period and sped all the way back into the lead — albeit for just an oh-so-brief 11 seconds — they immediately surrendered two goals in a half-minute as the result of mental errors.
A furious final period followed, but the tying goal did not, and Summit fell to Westfield 6-5 — the final horn ending the game and the Maroon and White’s two-year McInnis Cup title reign.
It was clear early on that this game would not resemble the teams’ tilt from a week prior, if only because — after just 27 seconds — Westfield was able to score: Anthony Oliveri shoveling the puck past Summit junior goaltender Nikita Pryymak. It appeared that the Hilltoppers were able to neutralize the early shock when junior Jake Puskar scored on the power play at the 12:03 mark, picking up a juicy rebound at the right edge of the crease.
But rather than using Puskar’s goal as a reset, Summit continued to look lethargic and second-best for the remainder of the period, and the Blue Devils — clearly the hungrier team — began feasting on opportunities straight away.
Nick Forno, Oliveri’s second of the game, and John Hunniston all found the back of the net, and it could have been worse for Summit as Pryymak made a couple of fine saves as Westfield swarmed in the Hilltopper zone for the stanza’s final 45 seconds.
Observers were expecting a reaction from the defending champs in the second period, and it began with a goaltending change — freshman Grant McCormack was now between the pipes — and continued with a team effort that was pretty much the polar opposite of its woeful first period. Not surprisingly, the results mirrored the performance.
Senior alternate captain Luc Radice — alone right in front of Westfield goalie CJ Duffy — went five-hole less than two minutes into the second to get the comeback underway. Then junior Tom Pryymak stuffed home a puck that squirted through Duffy’s pads to make it 4-3 with 7:29 left in the period. The game was tied at 4-4 when Puskar found the back of the net on a scrum with 2:26 remaining. Gone was the deficit, gone was Duffy — replaced by Zack Peterson — and one had to wonder if these were the same two teams that played the first period.
That thought was still lingering 46-seconds later when, miraculously, Summit took the lead. Sophomore Greg Spitznagel sailed down the right-wing boards and spotted senior captain Charlie Collins charging to the crease. Spitznagel saucered a 30-foot pass right onto Collin’s tape and he tipped the puck over Peterson. While there was no hockey stick riding celebration from Collins, there was a fair degree of euphoria from the boisterous student section behind the Hilltopper bench as the scoreboard now blinked 5-4 in favor of Summit.
Blinked, however, is the operative word. As in: if one blinked, they would have missed that lead going poof.
With Hilltopper Nation likely still in mid-sentence of, “Can you believe this game?,” the Blue Devils tied it right back up 11 seconds later as Trevor Tonella scored unassisted and then, amazingly, they regained the lead when Hunniston scored his second goal of the game with 41 seconds left in what ended as a six-goal, thrill ride of a period.
The third period began took the feel of what many felt the game itself was going to look like, namely a tight-checking, grinding affair between two quality hockey teams. As the frame progressed, Summit began to spend extended stretches in the Westfield end, working an aggressive forecheck and cycling the puck down low.
The shots — and scrums — began to pile up but Peterson, an unlikely hero about 90 minutes earlier, kept the door shut for the Blue Devils. Despite getting outshot 17-2 over the final 15 minutes and 42-21 for the game, the McInnis Cup was headed to the other side of Route 22.
“We weren’t mentally ready to play tonight,” said Summit Head Coach Keith Nixon. “We played Westfield three times this season. They are a hard-working talented team and each game was a battle. We came back in the second period but then made two more bad decisions and the puck wound up in our net.”
Summit, 16-6-1 on the season, now begins its playoff journey to defend their Public C Championship. The Hilltoppers have been given the number-four seed and will open play February 19 versus 13th-seeded Kinnelon at the Warinanco Skating Center. The tournament’s other top seeds are Indian Hills (1), Madison (2) and Lakeland (3).