PROVIDENCE, RI -- Zach Gruber’s second goal of the day, coming at 6:28 of double overtime, gave the New Jersey 87s a 4-3 win over the Worcester Railers Junior Hockey Club and the 2023 EHLP championship in a thrilling title game Sunday at Providence College’s Schneider Arena.
It was New Jersey’s second EHL title in three seasons, as they also defeated the Railers in the 2021 championship game.
Gruber’s goal, from the slot, capped a comeback for the 87s, who trailed 3-1 after the first period.
The EHL Premier Finals was the first of the two games on the day (The Boston Jr. Rangers and NH Avalanche are meeting for the EHL title in game two).
Aidan Healey got the start for the Railers and it was Jason LoRicco between the pipes for the 87s. The Railers were the fourth seedcoming into round-robin play and the 87s were the two seed. The Railers went 3-0, and the 87s were 1-1-1 in round robin play.
The Railers skated to a quick scoring chance just over a minute in. Michael O’Malley rung iron right off a faceoff win by Myles Kidd. Shortly after the third line went to work for the Railers. Captain Collin Berube scored on a great feed from Zach Warner-Senee to put Worcester on top, 1-0. The assist gave Warner-Senee a point in every Railers game played in Providence.
The goal woke New Jersey up. Healey was forced to make a trio of great saves including one he deflected off the post. The 87s earned the first power play of the game and leveled the playing field. A power play that scored three goals Saturday got a goal from Tyler Branish on Championship Sundayto tie it 1-1. Vasily Vasin had the lone assist on Branish’s first at Providence. A shot through traffic went over the blocker of Healey.
Kidd stayed hot after a two-goal game yesterday. He was able to direct a puck past LoRicco on a beautiful passing play from Andrew Fisher and Michael O’Malley, giving the Railers the lead again.
Later in the period, New Jersey would head back to the powerplay with eight minutes to go in the first. The Railers were able to kill the second 87s power play and seconds after the penalty expired, the Kidd and O’Malley connection would continue. O’Malley found Kidd all alone back door and Kidd scored his second of the period. The Railers now led 3-1.
New Jersey would come with a strong effort to get one back, but were a little too aggressive and took an interference penalty in the offensive zone. Thirty seconds into the power play Dylan Conatzer took a minor for slashing and the Railers went on a 5-on-3 advantage. LoRicco and company killed it off to end the first. The 87s would start the second down a man for 29 seconds. The shots after one were 16-12 in favor of the Railers.
The Gruber line with Nikita Sobolev and Ivan Borisov were getting their chances to start the second. On the other side, Collin Berube and his line were flying around. The goaltenders were on to start the second as well.
Borisov headed to the box 5:43 into the middle frame and the Railers’ power play had a chance to extend the lead. Nick Hunter was phenomenal on the kill as the Railers watched the power play run out with just one shot on goal.
With 10:36 to go in the middle frame, Aidan Swain headed to the box for a cross-check. This was a grade “A” chance for the 87s to cut the lead in half. Jed Morone and Aidan Wicker forced a turnover short-handed. Morone went backhand, forehand and was robbed by LoRicco. What a save it proved to be.
Shay Keating, the 87s captain, banged home a rebound on the doorstep. Logan Behrje and Gruber had the assists to make it a 3-2 game. The 87s kept coming, and Gruber tied the game on a great individual effort to pot home a backhander. With less than five to go in the second, we were tied. New Jersey pushed the pace the rest of the way… Healey shut the door right at the buzzer to send this game to the third tied at 3-3. The 87s swung the shot lead their way, 26-25. LoRicco and the 87s defense had a stellar middle frame.
It was twenty minutes (or more) to find a winner. Borisov had a great look right off the opening draw. He flew down the wing and fired a shot off that Healey gloved down. Less than a minute into the third the Railers would find themselves up a man. Jaymin Rolfe had a shot from the point hit the crossbar on the power play. The 87s penalty kill was able to kill off three straight shorthanded situations.
A turnover in the slot for the Railers nearly saw the 87s take their first lead. Healey was forced to make back-to-back saves to keep it tied. O’Malley was sent to the box for cross-checking with 11:35 remaining in the third. The 87s red-hot power play got a big look but New Jersey was unable to muster up much offense and the Railers got a much-needed kill.
Right after the Railers were back to even strength, a roughing call went against Ethan Paligo and it was the Railers to the power play. New Jersey kept everything to the outside and was able to kill off the power play without much trouble. The Railers would gift the 87s a power play back when Kidd was whistled for hooking with 6:10 to go. The Railers killed off the Kidd minor but were right back to the box moments later. Rolfe had a short-handed breakaway but missed the net on his backhand attempt.
Back the other way Gruber had a 2-on-1 opportunity that he shot high. Back-to-back kills for that Railers got them through nervous times. The Championship game was headed to overtime. The shots on goal after regulation were 40-35 in favor of New Jersey.
In the first overtime Nik Shoats had a breakaway right off the bat but fanned on the shot. Just two minutes later Behrje was in behind the defense and shot it just high blocker side. The tension could be cut with a knife in OT.
Both teams traded chances with the Railers getting a few more looks as the period went on. Kidd was buzzing in overtime, creating another scoring chance but LoRicco shut the door. The first overtime came to an end without the game-winning goal. The Railers outshot New Jersey 15-9 in the first OT.
The teams changed sides and were ready for the second overtime. O’Malley had the first dangerous chance of the second extra session, firing a shot from the circle just wide. Behrje came right back down the ice with a backhander that was kicked out. Not long after this battle for the ages came to an end.
Gruber, who won the tournament MVP award, rifled a shot from the slot over the blocker of Healey and sent the 87s into a frenzy. Keating assisted on the goal.
“This is unbelievable, credit to the Railers and that coaching staff. No one else we would have rather played.,” said 87s coach Conall McNellis. “We were never in the power rankings all season… look at us now. Champions.”
“It’s hard to put this into words right now, said Branish, who had New Jersey’s first goal. “We were just waiting for that goal.. It could have went either way.”
On the other side, Railers coach John Fine-Lease stated, “It could have gone either way. Credit to the 87s. Every guy on this team gave 100%.”