By Justin Feil, Packet Media Group
An early-season schedule that includes games on back-to-back days for the second straight week will test the Hillsborough High School ice hockey team.
Fortunately, the Raiders have more depth than ever and, with a veteran group back from last year, are well suited to take on the challenges. The Raiders are 1-2 overall heading into today’s Skyland Conference match against Ridge before they take on Bridgewater-Raritan on Friday.
“The first two conference games, I thought we should have won,” said Hillsborough head coach Gary Biggs. “I think we’re in a good place right now and we have to keep moving forward.”
Hillsborough opened the season with a 6-0 win over Colonia before falling by a 2-0 score to Pingry and a 1-0 score to Hunterdon Central.
“We played Colonia and won, 6-0, which was expected,” Biggs said. “Friday we played Pingry. We controlled most of the game. We outshot them, 35-20, and lost 2-0. They had an empty netter in third period. Saturday night, we played Hunterdon Central and outshot them pretty good, 32-20. We just couldn’t score. They scored one in the third. We’re snake bitten now, but we have a good group.”
Hillsborough is well tooled to compete in the rough-and-tumble Skyland Conference. The Raiders struggled for wins last year. They did not win a game through the first nine games before going on to finish 6-11-6. From that team, they return almost everyone who was a points contributor.
“We lost our captain, No. 23 Buek Forrest,” Biggs said. “He kind of led our power play and he played in all situations. Some of the guys that didn’t play as much, are helping to fill Buek’s role. We have a couple guys taking over his role. I can roll three lines. I have a lot of depth.”
The Raiders have 10 seniors back from last year. Among them is Marty Paro, who has started four years in goal.
“The first couple weeks of practice, we jumped right back into it,” Biggs said. “We’re not reinventing the wheel. We’re just perfecting what we do. The guys understand the system. The older guys are helping the underclassmen who are playing more this year.”
The experience returning includes: Christian Alfaro, Greg Bowers, Robert Briant, Matt Capadanno, Nick Cizin, Owen Delesky, Dave Ely, Sean Ely, Mike Lumbra, Alex Macphee, Dom Mazzaferro, Nick Monticchio, Nick Palmer, Marty Paro, Mike Riccardi, Nick Volonnino and Billy Webster.
“All 10 seniors were on last year and they all lettered,” Biggs said. “It’s a veteran squad. A couple of juniors that are returning that lettered and a couple of sophomores.”
They also have a number of newcomers contributing as well and making them an even deeper squad.
“We have a couple of freshmen,” Biggs said. “We have a defenseman, Matty Palmer. He plays every other shift for us. We have another freshman, Mike Jandoli. He’s a forward. I can see him being a regular on that third line. He’s been killing a lot of penalties for us.”
The veteran makeup of the team helped them hit the ground running, and they are hoping it will help them as they go deeper into the season and thinner teams wear down.
“I’m more comfortable rolling three lines this year,” Biggs said. “The kids are going to be comfortable in the third period. That’s one thing I didn’t have last year — the depth.
“Every game is a one-goal game in our league. Especially on back-to-back games against conference opponents, you need all your guys going at once.”
Hillsborough was missing a pair of contributors who are expected back this week. That should give them more depth and help them carry out their plans.
“We’re going more aggressive with our forecheck this year,” Biggs said. “Last year, we sat back and trapped because didn’t have our consistent legs. The first two games we were missing two of our key players. Having the depth, that’ll help us in the long run.
“I have so much depth,” he said. “I have guys that normally could be playing on the third line taking a spot shift. That also helps the guys, and they know there’s competition behind them.”
The biggest factor that the Raiders have going game in and game out is Paro. He’s seen more action than most any goaltender in the state, and he gives Hillsborough and real and mental edge.
“That’s what it is,” Biggs said. “We know he’s going to be our anchor. We can focus on what we need to do as a team because he has our back. His GAA is 0.90. Obviously we need to score for him. He’s only given up two goals in three games. He already has a shutout. That’s the confidence we have. He bails us out time and time again and eventually we have to bail him out.”
The Raiders felt they had the opportunities they wanted in their conference games, but the puck just didn’t go in for them.
“The Pingry goalie played very well,” Biggs said. “We had it a couple times on the doorstep and he robbed us. The same thing with Hunterdon Central. He robbed us. We’re getting our looks. We’re getting scoring chances. Just have to capitalize on them.
“It’s the way the puck’s been bouncing,” he added. “I don’t think moving forward offense should be an issue. Once we score one, the floodgates should open. We’re possessing well. We’re playing defense well. We’re keeping them to the outside and we have a four-year starting goalie Marty Paro. It’s early. We can’t panic.”
The Raiders have used this week to work on improving in every area while it’s early in the season. They see a lot of potential in the team, and fixing just a few things could get them back to winning.
“Obviously capitalizing every time we get a chance on the power play,” Gibbs said. “We went 0-for-9. It’s a little the goaltenders (playing well) and we’re pressing a bit and everyone wants to score that first goal. Our puck possession is really good. There are times we struggle to break it out, but it’s nothing that can’t be corrected.”
The Raiders are looking to their next challenges to see how much they can grow in a week. They have chances on back to back nights against Ridge and Bridgewater.
“You have to beat them to get to where you want,” Biggs said. “It’s not something you want (back-to-back nights). Ridge is very talented and Bridgewater is always well coached. It’s what can we do to shut them down. If we go toe to toe, we might not win. We have to dictate the game in our way.”
Hillsborough did everything but score in their first two conference games, and these games give them a chance to get back on track in a season that has high expectations.
“They’re disappointed they didn’t win them, but they know the season’s not won in December,” Biggs said. “The first couple games isn’t going to define our season. We’re working out some kinks and eventually we’ll be all right.”
By Justin Feil, Packet Media Group