WEST ORANGE- In an unusual season where just staying on the ice each day is a challenge Livingston can still enjoy being in a familiar position as the 2021 New Jersey high school ice hockey campaign comes to an end.
The second-seeded Lancers (8-2-2, 3-1-1) will be playing in their fifth McInnis Cup playoff final in the past nine years, including their third appearance in the past five seasons, when they face-off vs. fifth-seeded Glen Rock (6-2-1, 1-1-1), 4 p.m. Thursday at the Codey Arena.
Livingston edged third-seeded West Essex, 3-2, in Monday night’s semifinals to secure a spot in the New Jersey Interscholastic Ice Hockey League’s McInnis Cup final, one of four NJIIHL Cup championship games to be determined Thursday on the two sheets of ice inside Codey Arena.
Glen Rock upset top-seeded Westfield (9-2, 5-0-1), 4-2, on Tuesday night at the Woodbridge Community Center. The Bergen County school is coached by former Montclair standout player and ex-assistant coach Dean Portas.
Veteran Lancers coach Dave Conklin is happy with the way his team has handled all the protocols of dealing with a modified season in which simply avoiding anyone with the virus is paramount to remaining able to play each game.
“We’ve been really fortunate and I credit our players and their parents with staying in our own sort of bubble and doing whatever we need to do to stay together on the ice this season,” said Livingston’s 14th-year head coach and 1981 graduate of the high school where he excelled for the hockey squad. “Our kids have worked really hard to get to this point.”
The Lancers last won the McInnis Cupin 2013, defeating Montclair Kimberley Academy, 4-3. They have since lost their last three championship game appearances, 4-1 to MKA in 2015, 3-2 to Summit in 2017, and 3-1 to Summit in 2018.
The 2021 edition is a deep and balanced team with fairly equal representation among the seniors and juniors plus contributions from a few sophomores and freshmen to combine to help put together the program’s eighth winning season in the past 10 years.
And to reach the McInnis Cup final it meant defeating a familiar foe that always seems to provide a stern test for the Lancers. West Essex (5-4-2, 2-2-1), which also draws players from nearby James Caldwell High School as part of a successful cooperative program, had defeated Livingston, 3-0, back in the season opener on Jan. 15, and had edged a talented, sixth-seeded Montclair team, 4-3, in the Mennen Cup quarterfinals on Sunday.
The latest contest saw the Lancers take a 1-0 lead as junior forward Spencer Solomon scored with 11:25 remaining in the first period, an advantage that stood up until the third period when West Essex tied matters with a short-handed goal by Clayton Prial at the tail end of three straight power play opportunities for the Knights.
“We had a couple of penalties in a short period of time there, but our defense did a spectacular job of holding them at bay before their goal,” said Conklin. “And, fortunately, we were able to respond with our own goal.”
Junior defenseman Andrew Qian (assisted by senior Tyler Schultz) scored the Lancers' go-ahead goal with 14:04 remaining, and then after a timeout with 1:28 left to make sure everyone was in sync for the final seconds, Qian scored an empty net goal with 49 seconds remaining.