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Prior to the start of the season, Suffern coach Rob Schelling claimed that first-year starter Nick Modica was the "best goalie in the state."
On Tuesday at the Ice Hutch, Schelling's words proved prophetic.
Modica was razor sharp in net, making 25 saves to spearhead a hard-fought 3-1 victory over Pelham.
"We had a good pregame warmup," said the junior netminder, who has a sterling save percentage of 93.3. "My head was really into it today and I felt the puck at the beginning of the game. That's what really set the tone."
Modica's silence during the pregame tipped off teammate Thomas Brennan, who knew his goaltender was primed for a huge game.
"Nick wasn't really talking to anybody, so you could tell he was in the zone," Brennan said. "I expected him to play really well and have a huge bounce back game."
Collectively, it was much-needed bounce back game for Suffern (9-2), which was reeling after getting upset by Mamaroneck last Friday. It marked the first time since the 2008-09 season that the Mounties had dropped two games to Section 1 opponents. The other defeat came at the hands of White Plains back in December.
Needless to say, Suffern wasn't about to let Pelham (5-4-2) pile on.
"We knew that we didn't come out as we planned against Mamaroneck," said Modica, who gave up a season-high four goals to the Tigers. "Our heads really weren't into it. Today, we got 10 extra minutes on the bus to get our heads focused into this game."
And the Mounties needed that extra focus against a Pelicans squad on the upswing. The two defending Section 1 champs slugged it out like heavyweight fighters during a scoreless opening period. Brennan finally broke the stalemate with 3:41 left in the second period, flipping in a power-play goal off an assist from fellow defenseman Tom Mahoney.
"I was wide open on the power play and I got a pass over from my d' partner Tommy Mahoney," said Brennan, who has 11 points (3G, 8A) on the year. "I just tried to throw it on net and it went top shelf. It was the first goal of the game — a big goal."
Nick Jaeger doubled Suffern's lead with 9:56 left in regulation, beating Pelicans goalie Matt DeYoung (19 saves) five-hole with a low slap shot. Pelham finally got on the board at the 3:30 mark of the third, as Hugh McNulty unleashed a rocket that zoomed past a screened Modica to trim the deficit to 2-1.
But Kevin Hill put an end to the drama with less than a minute left, slipping behind the Pelicans' defense to score on a breakaway. The goal sent Pelham's home crowd fleeing toward the exits.
"We gave (Hill) a little too much room and he put the dagger in the heart," Pelicans coach Ed Witz said.
The end result sort of diminished how well Pelham actually played. They outshot Suffern 26-22 overall and were the more physical team, too. Despite trailing 1-0 heading into the third period, Witz liked his odds.
"We felt that at the start of the third period we were starting to wear them down," Witz said. "We were still playing three lines and felt we were wearing them down. We thought we were going to break through. We basically felt that if we scored one, we would score three. But it took so long for us to get that first goal."
Pelham's failure to convert on a pair of third-period power plays turned out to be the difference. And Modica was at the center of it all, making a veritable highlight reel of saves down the stretch.
"The penalty kill is what we thrive off of," Modica said. "If we get a good penalty kill, we will get our momentum going. I try to be there for the guys if somebody misses a puck backdoor."
On this night, Modica was here, there and everywhere.
GAME NOTES: Dating back to the 2008-09 season, Suffern is 9-0-1 against Pelham. The Mounties have outscored the Pelicans by a combined total of 45-6 during the 10-game stretch … Kevin Hill leads Suffern in scoring with 25 points (16G, 9A) … According to Pelham coach Ed Witz, standout forward Andrew Schauer could return the last week of January. Schauer went down with a head injury early in the season.
KEYS TO THE GAME
1. Learning to live with a target: It has taken a little time getting used to, but Suffern's learning to live with the title of defending NYS D1 state champs. While this year's team is drastically different than last year's, the opposition still sees a chance to slay Goliath. Mounties goalie Nick Modica summed up the situation well. "You are a state champion and every time you go to someone else's barn or they come to play you, it's going to be their biggest game of the year," he said. "It was hard for us in the beginning to really focus on and understand that. Every team is going to give us their best, so we can't have a night off."
2. Modica back on track: In Suffern's loss to Mamaroneck, Modica relinquished a season-high four goals. Needless to say, he bounced back in a big way against Pelham. The Mounties don't win the game without him. Coach Ed Witz praised the Suffern netminder. "Modica is an all-state caliber goalie and he came up big," Witz said. "He did everything he had to do."
3. Suffern survives without Carudo and Tiso: Once again, the Mounties were without two key players in starting senior defenseman Anthony Carudo, a captain, and high-scoring forward Justin Tiso. Both players were sidelined due to injuries. Unlike against Mamaroneck, Suffern was able to mask the absences. Robert Clark filled the void at forward and Tom Mahoney was solid on defense.
Suffern 1 0 2 3
Pelham 0 0 1 1
SF (3:41) Thom Brennan from Tom Mahoney | 1-0 SF *
SF (9:56) Nick Jaeger unassisted | 2-0 SF
PE (3:30) Hugh McNulty from Will Donovan and David Morgan | 2-1 SF
SF (0:56) Kevin Hill from Thom Brennan | 3-1 SF
* Indicates power-play goal
Suffern: Thom Brennan (1G, 1A); Kevin Hill (1G); Nick Jaeger (1G); Tom Mahoney (1A)
Pelham: Hugh McNulty (1G); David Morgan (1A); Will Donovan (1A)
Suffern: Nick Modica (25 saves)
Pelham: Matt DeYoung (19 saves)
Suffern 7 6 9 22
Pelham 9 6 11 26
Email Isaac Cass at Icass@cablevision.com | Follow him on Twitter @MSGV_Icass