By Justin Feil, Packet Media Group
Dave Ely is hoping to see more drive in the Hillsborough High School ice hockey team.
The Raiders center wants his senior class to finish with a state tournament run, and picking up some wins down the home stretch of the regular season would help the team get there.
“It’s pretty big motivation to finish the season strong,” said Ely, a team captain along with Nick Volonnino and Christian Alfaro. “We’re trying to push to get to .500 and make the state playoffs. We don’t want the season to end early.”
Hillsborough was 5-10-1 heading into Tuesday’s scheduled non-conference matchup with Rumson. The Raiders take on Bernards today and face Ridge on Friday in a key week that could help them push toward .500.
“There’s just the motivation that these last few games are must-win games if we want to make the state playoffs,” Ely said. “That’s kind of pushing the team. It’s like playoffs all the time. Every game you go into is pretty much a must-win game.”
Hillsborough has played a tough schedule, and the Raiders could still apply for an at-large bid if they don’t make it to .500.
“We don’t want to count on that,” Ely said. “We have to finish the Bridgewater game. Including that game, we have eight total games left (before the state tournament cutoff).”
Ely is the team’s leading scorer with 11 points. He added a game-winner to that total when his first-period goal from Robbie Briant stood up in a 2-1 win over Montgomery last Wednesday. Nick Palmer had opened the scoring off assists from Nick Cizin and Matt Palmer. Ely provided a second goal.
“I was skating back out of the offensive zone and someone chipped the puck up,” Ely recalled. “It was a quick transition. Their D were pushing up. It was a quick turnover. We were able to come in on a quick two-on-one.”
Montgomery got on the scoreboard with a power play goal at the end of the period, but there was no more scoring the rest of the game. Marty Paro, in his second game back from an injury, made 35 saves and the defense did the rest.
“We’re definitely a defensively minded team,” said Hillsborough head coach Gary Biggs. “We’re not a team that’s going to be putting up a lot of points. If we stick to our forecheck and defensive zone and Marty bails us out, if we find a way to score two or three and play strong defensively, that’s our game plan.”
That strategy has kept the Raiders in all of their games. They have lost their share of heartbreakers. Seven of their losses have come by two goals or fewer. Even without Paro, Hillsborough got strong goaltending from Mike Riccardi. The Raiders have found a style that helps them.
“We were a little more aggressive earlier in the year,” Biggs said. “We switched back to more of a defensive style. I thought being older, we could bring more pressure. We went to the 1-2 forecheck and it’s worked for us. It’s a less aggressive forecheck.”
Ely would love to see more offense out of Hillsborough, but has seen the team compete well with its defensive style. Even a lopsided loss to Morristown was only 1-0 after the first period. The Raiders figure to lean on their defense-first mentality the rest of the way.
“That’s the kind that works best for our team,” Ely said. “It’s how we have to win games.”
Ely is in his fourth year contributing for the Raiders. He has spent the last three seasons doing what he does best — scoring and setting up others on offense, getting back on defense and playing the point for the power play.
“He’s a great leader,” Biggs said. “He’s quarterback of our power play. He runs it offensively. He’s the one putting the puck in the net for us. He’ll play an extra shift if we need it. His hockey IQ is one of the best I’ve ever coached. The kids listen to him and respect him in the locker room. He’s been playing a lot of minutes for me for four years. He does everything really well.”
Ely continues to provide a steady voice for the Raiders and leads by example as well. The Raiders have a huge senior class, but they also have almost a dozen sophomores and a handful of freshman contributors. They have settled into the roles that will help the Raiders the most. Ely is resilient and determined as he enters his final month with the HHS program.
“I feel like we’re getting our chances and putting ourselves in position to win,” Ely said. “Some bounces aren’t going our way, and they’ll get a lucky bounce and score.
“We just have to keep crashing the net and getting the dirty goals. We have to keep getting the puck deep and eventually the pucks will find their way in.”
Ely usually pairs with Volonnino and Craig Bowers on shifts. He’s hoping that the Raiders can make things easier on their defense by being more productive down the stretch.
“We’re getting the chances,” Ely said. “We’re getting a reasonable amount of chances, we just need to get a lucky bounce. We have to keep crashing the net and hopefully we’ll start scoring more.”
The Raiders are confident that they can generate more goals with a more complete effort. They are getting solid play from half the team, but need everyone on board to reach their potential.
“It’s something we’ve been trying to teach to the kids — that you have to bring it every night,” Biggs said.
“Especially in the Skyland, every team is so competitive you can’t afford to take the night off.”
There will be plenty of nights off when the season ends. For Ely and his senior class, there is some uncertainty about the future. He could play club hockey if his final college choice has it, but there are no guarantees. It’s why he is working hard to ensure that the Raiders make a push for the state tournament and their final goal.
Said Ely: “We can still make something out of this season if we start winning some games.”
By Justin Feil, Packet Media Group