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87's win second EHLP title in double OT thriller

By Anthony DiPaolo, 04/02/23, 11:45AM EDT


Third straight year 87's win a Frozen Finals

For the second time in three seasons, the New Jersey 87’s are EHLP champions after defeating the Railers Jr. Hockey Club, 4-3 in double overtime, at the Frozen Finals in Providence, RI.

Zach Gruber scored a pair of goals, including the game-winner at 6:28 of the second overtime. Named the EHLP Frozen Finals Most Valuable Player, Gruber finished the postseason with 16 points (9g, 7a) and set the EHLP record for most points in a single postseason. Goaltender Jason LoRicco finished the game with 51 saves.

Conall McNelis, who just completed his second season as head coach for the 87’s EHLP team, spoke about the championship run.

“This is unbelievable, credit to the Railers and that coaching staff. No one else we would have rather played,” McNelis said. “We were never in the power rankings all season, and look at us now. Champions.”

Railers captain Colin Berube opened the scoring at 2:08 of the first period on a great feed from Zack Warner-Senee. The 87’s responded a few minutes later on the power play when defenseman Tyler Branish flung a wrist shot over the blocker of Railers goaltender Aidan Healey.

Myles Kidd took control of the period shortly after Branish’s goal. Midway through the first, Andrew Fischer and Michael O’Malley connected on a tic-tac-toe passing play, sending it right to Kidd as he buried his sixth goal of the postseason and gave the Railers a 2-1 lead. Then with just over five minutes left in the first, he slammed a one-timer that just slipped past LoRicco for his second goal of the game and doubled the Railers’ lead.

New Jersey would bounce back in the second period, starting with a power play goal from Shay Keating at 11:27. Gruber went for a stuff-in at the side of the goal, and it generated a rebound where the captain punched in his second goal of the postseason. Gruber tied the game at 15:09 when he drove to the net and banked a backhander off the post and in.

Both teams had numerous chances in the third period and overtime, but the game would finally end when Keating picked up a loose puck in the corner and slid a perfect pass right to Gruber in the high slot, as he fired a wrist shot high-blocker side to win the game for the 87’s.

“I just hopped on the ice and Shay had a good forecheck down low. I yelled for it and he threw it out front and I just picked far side on the shot,” Gruber said of the goal.

It was not only the second time the 87’s had won a championship in three seasons, but they have also defeated the Railers in both of those matchups. Robert Calice and Ivan Borisov are the only two players to win both championships with the EHLP team, and Calice spoke about his experience after the double overtime win.

“This does not feel different from the first championship at all. When Gruber finished and I jumped off the bench, I’m just thinking, ‘Oh baby, let’s go!’ I haven’t been this hyped in a while,” Calice said.

He continued, “I think the first time around, we knew we had it. We were in the driver’s seat for that game. This game, no not at all. It was 50-50 the whole time, it was a battle the whole way.”

Road to the championship game

The 87’s played three round robin games against the other qualifying teams: the Boston Jr. Rangers, the Railers and the New Hampshire Avalanche.

On the first night against the Jr. Rangers, Keating scored early in the first period to give New Jersey a 1-0 lead. It took until the end of the game for another goal, as the Boston pulled the goalie during a power play and EHLP forward of the year, Drake Tomak, tied the game with 38 seconds left. Neither team scored in the five-minute 3-on-3 overtime, meaning the game finished in a 1-1 tie.

The following day, the 87’s faced the Railers and it was Zack Warner-Senee who opened the scoring at 6:56 of the second period. Ethan Paligo knotted things up as snapped a wrist shot over the glove of Aidan Healey and popped the water bottle, getting his second goal of the postseason. Michael O’Malley scored the go-ahead goal in the third period as he raced down the left wing and snapped a shot past the glove of LoRicco. Head coach Conall McNelis elected to keep LoRicco in net instead of using an extra attacker for the tying goal, just in case the round robin would have been decided by goal-differential.

Heading into the game against New Hampshire, who was 1-1 in their first two games, the 87’s needed a regulation win in order to leapfrog past the Avs in the standings and advance to the championship game. Gruber got things rolling with a power-play goal 14:26 into the first period, giving the 87’s a 1-0 lead.

In the second period, a five-minute major was assessed to New Jersey during a stretch of 4-on-4 hockey, giving the Avalanche a 4-on-3 power play. Ryan Dann scored on a wrist shot from the left circle to even the score. Another five-minute penalty against the 87’s put them down two players, and the Avs had a 5-on-3 power play for 2:16.

The penalty kill went to work, and the 87’s managed to kill it off between a flurry of blocked shots and big saves by LoRicco. His best on that penalty kill came from a one-timer at the left circle by Avs’ top scorer John D’Errico, as LoRicco lunged to his right and blockered away the blistering shot.

After the second five-minute major expired, New Hampshire was given a major penalty for boarding, putting New Jersey on the power play. Gruber scored his second of the game as he stuffed in a shot from the goal line at 16:56. A minute later, the 87’s doubled the lead as Gruber went for a similar play, and Vasily Vasin punched home the rebound. The Avs got one back in the third period, but LoRicco finished the game with 42 saves as New Jersey got the regulation win and secured the second spot in the championship game.

“We said it on the bench, I think it was Robert Calice and Vasily Vasin who were saying ‘let’s kill this, and we’re going to get all the momentum.’ It was unbelievable, and the bench won us today’s game,” McNelis said about the penalty kill against New Hampshire.

Additional Notes:

-Special teams was crucial for the 87’s EHLP team’s success. They killed 29 of 31 penalties in the playoffs (93.5%) while going 12-for-40 on the power play (30%).

-This was the first time the EHLP team played at Schneider Arena in Providence, RI. The Frozen Finals in 2021 was played in West Chester, PA.

-Between the EHLP and EHL teams, this is the third straight year the 87’s have won a championship. The Premier team won in 2021 and 2023 while the EHL team won it all in 2022.