The Big Blue of Pingry are in an all-too-familiar position.
Sitting at 4-5 heading into a Tuesday afternoon contest with Bridgewater-Raritan -- the top team in the Skyland Conference and No. 4 in the MSG Varsity Top 15 -- the returning players have not forgotten where they were this time last year.
Pingry went five straight games without a win last December. By the end of January, the Big Blue were 12-3-3 and finished with an overall record of 17-5-3. The club was scorching hot as it marched through the conference tournament, which culminated in a 6-1 blowout of Montgomery to capture the Skyland Cup.
With a 3-0 win over Bridgewater-Raritan this time, Pingry hopes the early January triumph will also steady the ship as it heads down the homestretch.
“We really needed this one,” said Hugin. “We marked this game on the calendar and we knew we had to come out and play hard. They’re a great team.”
Pingry certainly played that way, coming out of the gates hard with plenty of pressure on Panthers goalie Robbie Campbell. It was a good sign for a team in desperate need of a league win.
Hugin struck early in the first period for the Big Blue, capitalizing on a scramble in front to give his team a, 1-0, lead.
In fact, Pingry’s top forward unit of Nick Branchina, Pat Lackey and Hugin did all the damage, striking for all three scores in the victory.
“I love the chemistry we have,” said Lackey of his line’s performance. “We were struggling earlier in the season, but now we’re finally clicking and getting some tic-tac-toe passes out there.”
Bridgewater-Raritan had its chances in the second period to tie the game, earning two power plays, but each time a Panther took a penalty to end their man-advantage.
With 44 seconds left in the second period, Branchina finished a give-and-go with Lackey, who was stationed in the right wing corner, to put Pingry up, 2-0.
There was still plenty of time for the Panthers, who regrouped and hoped to start the third period off strong, but Hugin scored his second of the game off a rebound just 45 seconds into the final frame to extend the lead to 3-0.
“They played great, they really played hard,” said Pingry coach John Magadini. “We knew we had a little bit of speed so we tried to keep it wide to get around their defense. That seemed to work out pretty well, but all the goals came from right in front of the net. That’s what we try to do. We get the puck to the net and we go to the net as hard as we can. If the goalie leaves out a rebound, he’s going to have a problem. The guys worked hard for that, they worked hard in the corners, and any coach loves to see that.”
The Big Blue defense also had little trouble shutting down a Panthers offense that was averaging 4.5 goals per game and featured one of the Skyland Conference’s top players in David Monahan. Bridgewater-Raritan was afforded very few qualities chances in the game.
“We didn’t focus on him [Monahan],” said coach Magadini. “We just told the guys to play hard and if you come back hard you’ll take away a lot of their chances, and if you forecheck hard, that means they can’t get the puck. He gets most of his chances on long passes coming out of the zone.”
The dominant performance from Pingry’s top forward line was a welcome sight. Last season, Branchina and Lackey played with 94-point scorer Matt Beattie, who committed to Yale last week, and the line combined for 224 points in all. But, the junior winger Hugin knows he has to play within himself and cannot try to be his predecessor.
“I can’t really fill his shoes,” said Hugin. “I’m just trying to work as hard as I can. I know I can do that.”
The schedule does not get much easier for the Big Blue. Next is a matchup against the top New Jersey public school, Randolph, which sits at No. 3 in the MSG Varsity rankings. A solid performance could send them soaring with Watchung Hills, Montclair Kimberley and Princeton Day to follow.
But, for now, Pingry will enjoy the moment and hope this is a sign of things to come, as it was this time last season.
“The win really does have to mean a lot to them. I hope it does,” said coach Magadini. “They’ve proven to themselves they have what’s necessary to win.”
Mark Krulish covers ice hockey for MSG Varsity. Follow him on Twitter: @Mark_Krulish