LITTLE FALLS -- Clifton forward John Calise remembers all too well the disappointment of last season's Passaic County Coaches' Ice Hockey Tournament.
"Losing last year took a lot out of our team, so that's why this year it was so important for us to redeem ourselves," said Calise, after the Mustangs edged defending champion West Milford Highlanders, 2-1, in Sunday's final at Floyd Hall Arena. "Today's win was big. It was really a collective effort."
After West Milford took an early lead, Ryan Hoyt tied it up in the second period and Ian Meltzer scored the game winner at 4:52 of the third period for the Mustangs, who notched their third County title in four years.
"It was nice to get the championship back," said Clifton coach Tom Danko. "The guys have been saying all season that they wanted to be the County champs again, and they did it."
Despite coming out strong, the Mustangs found themselves down 1-0 when the Highlanders scored at 4:55 of the opening period. Clifton goaltender Jason Zuck challenged Jim Fisher on a breakaway, but the puck rebounded off Zuck's pads and onto the stick of Joe Romano, who touched home an easy open-netter.
"[Zuck] committed himself and made the right move but no defenders were there to stop the play," Danko said. "We shifted things a little after that and the defense came through big time."
Clifton knotted the score at 13:03 of the second period when Calise drove down ice and dished off a perfect pass to Ryan Hoyt, who lifted the puck over the shoulder of Highlander goaltender Sean Ryan. To his credit, Ryan, a freshman, faced a slew of Mustang shots (34 in all) and did an admirable job in net.
But Meltzer, who leads the Mustangs (6-1-2) in goals scored with 13, rifled in a wide-angle shot at 4:52 that Ryan simply couldn't stop.
"He's got the hot hand right now," Danko said. "But I have to give a pat on the back to Calise, too, for today's win. He put the extra effort in time and time again."
Meanwhile, the pesky Mustangs defense frustrated the Highlanders, who managed several breakaways, only to be caught by the speedier Clifton skaters.
"We adjusted as the game went on and we just shut them down in the third period," Danko said.
Except for the early goal, Zuck was stellar in net for the Mustangs, including a gorgeous diving save late in the game.
Highlander coach Steve Frye was disappointed in the loss but said he felt the team has come a long way in the past few years.
"Two years ago, we lost 11-1 to Clifton," said Frye. "Now we've made the finals twice in a row. We've come a long way."
The Mustangs are also looking at the bright side.
"This win could carry us for the rest of the season," said Calise. "It's great for morale and it's sort of a stepping stone because we have a tough schedule coming up."
Clifton faces division rival Montclair on Friday and St. Peter's Prep and a red-hot Paramus squad next week.
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