By Brian Deakyne
WALL — It’s been anything but a traditional Red Bank Catholic start to their 2011-2012 ice hockey season.
With a loss to Ridge, an eight-goal loss to Princeton Day, and a mercy loss to Christian Brothers Academy, it has been a work in progress for Casey’s head coach Ken Carlson, and his team that graduated five 20+ point scorers from last season’s team that won the Handchen Cup.
Red Bank Catholic took a big step in the right direction, scoring four goals over the first two periods to edge divisional foe Middletown South, 4-3, Sunday afternoon.
The Casey’s scored four straight goals after surrendering the lead in the opening minutes, and senior goalie Chet Tooker made 26 saves to help Red Bank Catholic to a much-needed win.
“It’s a big win,” Carlson said, “It’s a division opponent, and Middletown South always has a good team. So on their rink, to be ahead by three and hold on for the win, I was very happy about that.”
Middletown South battled back in the final period, as Chris Connor scored two goals over the final five minutes to draw the Eagles within a goal, but Tooker stood tall, not allowing the game-tying goal over the final minute.
Connor buried his first goal with 5:07 left in the third period while being knocked down outside the right slot, and later, threw a puck on net from the boards that squeaked through Tooker with 39 seconds remaining.
Tooker stopped the Eagles on three power plays, with the Eagles totaling eight shots over the three man-advantages, but were unable to score. His big saves enabled Red Bank Catholic to jump out to a three-goal advantage over the first two periods.
“That was the key to our game, Chet Tooker,” Carlson said. “The first two periods, especially, he made some great saves, it could have been a 4-4 game going into the third. We’re lucky we had Chet back there.”
Michael Hodge scored RBC’s first goal 31 seconds after Middletown South took the initial lead, and Kyle Gatta put the Casey’s in front for good with just under five minutes remaining in the first period.
Hodge took the rebound from the initial shot and drove it to the right of Eagles’ goalie Sean Sliwicki and Gatta followed his own shot by pounding it through Sliwicki’s pads.
Christian Constantino scored on a breakaway early in the third period, when Middletown South defensemen Dan Wotjick misplayed a puck that was lofted in the air.
Wotjick attempted to stop the puck with his skates in the defensive zone, but the puck slipped between both skates, sending Constantino in on Sliwicki alone, where he made one deke and slapped the puck into the net.
Jack Donleavy added the Casey’s final goal in the final minute of the second period. His initial wrist shot appeared to be stopped by Sliwicki, but the puck found an opening and slowly creeped into the back of the net with 40 seconds left in the period, giving Red Bank Catholic the 4-1 lead.
“Something we haven’t done this year, but we’ve been working on is getting pucks to the net and getting rebounds. We’ve been working on that in practice, and it seems like the guys are starting to get it now,” Carlson said.
Sliwicki stopped 13 of the 17 shots that he faced through the first two periods. Shubhro Bose — the Eagles regular starter — relieved Sliwicki in the third period and stopped the only shot he faced.
Middletown South out-shot RBC 10-1 in the third period and 29-18 on the game, but Tooker made enough saves to keep the Casey’s ahead.
Eagles’ captains Jimmy Burns and Tyler Ralph both returned to the ice after missing nearly a month with injuries. Ralph connected with Burns for the Eagles first goal 4:18 into the game.
Ralph gained the offensive zone with possession of the puck, and swung a pass to the front of the net for Burns, who tipped the puck over Tooker’s left leg pad, giving Middletown South the early lead.
On Monday, Ralph netted a hat trick for the Eagles while Trever Ralph made 42 saves in goal for a 4-3 South victory over rival Christian Brothers Academy. The win marked the first time Middletown South has defeated its in-town rival in 12 years.