The New Jersey Titans hold a 2-1 series lead in the East Division Final as they defeated the Johnstown Tomahawks, 3-2, at Middletown Sports Complex on Friday night.
Spencer Stanley, Gavin Gulash and Shane Haviland were the goal scorers while Titans goaltender Brandon Perrone finished the night with 36 saves. The win puts the Titans one game away from advancing to the Robertson Cup Tournament in Blaine, Minnesota for the first time in team history.
The Tomahawks managed to erase a two-goal deficit early in the third period, but Haviland’s goal stood as the game-winner. Titans head coach Craig Doremus spoke about his team’s ability to stay focused and pull out the win in front of a raucous Middletown crowd.
“Full credit to our guys throughout the playoff run here. They’ve been a resilient group, their mentality has been really good and despite obstacles and adversity they’ve continued to push forward and strive,” he said. “Really proud of their pushback again tonight, not an easy scenario giving up a two-goal lead in the third, but the response was great and it leads to the game-winning goal.”
The first period was scoreless, but the Tomahawks had the best scoring chance when Mitchell Hale slipped a pass to a cutting Christian Gorsack for a mini breakaway. Perrone slid over and was able to make the pad save to keep the game tied at zero.
Perrone came up huge again early in the second period by stopping a shorthanded breakaway five minutes in. The puck went by Haviland at the blue line, leaving Pavel Kharin off to the races. Perrone stopped the initial shot with his right pad, then kept the pad down as Kharin took several whacks with the puck just outside the goal line.
The Titans suffered a blow with 13:42 left in the second, when Eric Manoukian went feet-first into the boards and was helped off the ice with a lower-body injury. He did not return for the remainder of the game, and his status for Game 4 will be a game-time decision.
Despite being shorthanded at the blue line, Stanley gave the Titans a 1-0 lead a few minutes later. Kyler Head entered the zone on a three-on-two rush and laid a saucer pass to the far side for Michael Outzen. He then fired a cross-crease pass to Stanley, who buried his second goal of the playoffs at 9:27.
Just 58 seconds later, Ryan Naumovski forced a turnover in the Tomahawks corner and slid pass to Zach Nazzarett in the high slot. The Miami Ohio commit threw the puck on goal, where Gulash redirected the puck by Tomahawks goaltender Carter McPhail for his sixth goal of the playoffs.
“We knew we had to be good on the forecheck and cause turnovers, and that’s exactly what happened,” Gulash said of the goal. “Me and Ryan were in the corner, we pressured their defense and turned the puck over, he made a nice pass to Nazzarett and luckily I made it to the front of the net on a 2-on-0. It was a pretty easy tap-in.”
On top of scoring six goals in the postseason, four of Gulash’s goals have come in the second round against Johnstown. After setting the single-season goal record in the regular season, the Red Bank, N.J. native spoke about staying hot in the playoffs.
“Someone’s got to step up. Thankfully I got two helpful linemates that make it pretty easy to play out there, it’s not too hard when you have guys like Ryan and Nazz,” he said.
Johnstown cut the deficit in half by scoring a shorthanded goal 53 seconds into the third period. Cam Hebert slid a pass to a wide open Oliver Benwell, and he slipped the puck five-hole to make it a 2-1 game. Chad Merrell tied the game at two when he redirected a shot from the point, earning his first goal of the playoffs at 4:08.
Gulash described the mood on the Titans’ bench after relinquishing the two-goal lead, noting that the team never got down and collectively kept its composure.
“Going into the third we just knew that we had to stay mentally tough, and that they were going to have a big push and we’d have to weather the storm. Once it became 2-2, we stayed calm and just focused on our game,” he said.
Shane Haviland restored the Titans lead as he buried a loose puck at the doorstep at 7:36 of the third. Chris Garbe’s initial shot was blocked, and he slid a pass to Haviland at the near post on the second attempt. The Wall, N.J. native lifted the puck over McPhail’s pad to make it a 3-2 game. Haviland spoke about the chemistry between his linemates, Garbe and Josef Glamos, who were put together as a unit late in the regular season.
“You could tell right from the minute we were put together instant chemistry we had and it’s just flowed on since March. We’ve kept the momentum going which is awesome for the team,” he said.
Doremus also had words of praise for the trio that has been red-hot heading into the postseason. “The work ethic, the passion, and they compliment each other in a really unique way. For them to be rewarded there, it’s poetic for our team right now,” he said.
Tomahawks coach Mike Letizia pulled McPhail as time was winding down, and Perrone made one more big save by denying Samuel Solensky on a breakaway with a minute left in the game. The Titans were able to hang on from there and secure the 3-2 victory. Leading the series 2-1, New Jersey has a chance to clinch tonight and advance to the Robertson Cup Tournament for the first time in team history. Doremus said he’s confident in the team’s ability to stay focused and finish the job on home ice.
“I’m not so much worried about their focus. We have a mission we’re on here collectively together and I think everyone knows what’s at stake here,” he said. “We want to make sure they continue to execute in all three zones for all 200 feet, our play away from the puck is going to be super critical, and our discipline.”
Puck drop tonight is scheduled for 7:05 p.m. at Middletown Sports Complex. For those unable to attend the game, it will be available for streaming on hockeytv.com.
Photo Credit: Pete MacDonald (Twitter: @PMacDonald51)