Thanks to the COVID-19 pandemic, the Gloucester Catholic and St. Augustine ice hockey teams did not get to play in front of a packed house as usual on Thursday afternoon.
But even in an empty rink, there was no denying the intensity in South Jersey’s best rivalry.
Ryan Talorico scored a pair of goals and Ryan Bunting added his second goal of the year as Gloucester Catholic, No. 3 in the NJ.com Top 20, held off No. 14 St. Augustine, 5-2, at the Igloo in Mount Laurel.
Tyler Carter also scored and Zach Johnson chipped in an empty-net goal and an assist as the Rams improved to 2-1. The Hermits fell to 1-3-1.
“We always look forward to playing The Prep,” Talorico said. “It’s our biggest rival and we love playing them. It’s always a hard, physical game until the end.”
“This is a team you want to beat every year, every time you play them,” Bunting added. “It’s a rivalry game and it’s huge.”
Gloucester Catholic is 2-0-1 in the series over the last two seasons, but this meeting was a lot different than previous ones. Only players, coaches, referees and a handful of essential personnel were in attendance.
“Unfortunately, we can’t have fans right now, but the last three or four games at Hollydell it was standing room only,” said Gloucester Catholic coach Tom Bunting, Ryan’s father. “You’re talking about a thousand people jammed in there. It’s good for South Jersey hockey.
“High school hockey in North Jersey is way different; they take it way more seriously. Down here it’s kind of an afterthought. So for us to play games like we’ve played in front of those crowds, to me it’s good for the area and it’s good for high school hockey overall. Young kids come and see that and say, ‘I want to play in a game like that.’ So win or lose it’s a positive for both of us.”
St. Augustine coach Tim Fingerhut echoed those sentiments.
“It’s a great rivalry and typically when we play this game there’s people everywhere and you can’t move,” he said. “It’s a great environment.”
While that aspect was missing Thursday, the game was still played at a high level. Bunting gave the Rams the early lead with an even-strength goal with 7:21 left in the first period off a beautiful feed from Billy Sheridan, and they were off and running.
Bunting now has two goals in three games as he takes on a bigger role in his sophomore campaign.
“We lost a couple seniors and a couple other guys, and I’m not a freshman anymore, so I definitely expected to step up,” he said. “My dad told me I was going to have a bigger role. We’re playing on the second line so we have to contribute.
“(My father) is hard on me but it pays off. It keeps me working. He’s coached every team I’ve played for so I’m used to it.”
The elder Bunting has been impressed with the entire line, which also includes Sheridan and Casey Johnson.
“I thought (Ryan) did a nice job today,” he said. “He has two linemates who I think are my two best forwards. You see the pass Billy Sheridan made. He made a 100-foot pass back-door on Ryan’s tape. There’s not too many guys out there who can make that pass or even attempt it. And Casey set up a bunch of other opportunities throughout the game.
“Ryan has been at the right place at the right time but he has linemates who are unbelievable passers and very unselfish. They’re special players; they’re Division 1 players in my mind.”
Gloucester Catholic increased its lead to 3-0 with two more pretty goals in the second period, both showcasing their speed and unselfishness. Talorico was the beneficiary both times on odd-man rushes, scoring off assists from Jake Grace and Ryder Wicken.
“Everyone is very unselfish with the puck and willing to give it up to make a play,” Talorico said. “They’re willing to do whatever it takes to win. I’m always driving the net so I was there for the rebound or I was there for the goal, either way.”
Talarico’s goals gave the Rams some much-needed breathing room heading into the final period.
“We know they fight hard all the time so we definitely didn’t stop playing,” he said. “We knew we had to keep battling until the buzzer and we did until the end. Those goals gave us a chance to lay back and play defense and let everything come to us instead of pushing to them.”
St. Augustine got on the board on Deaglan Kelly’s power-play goal just over three minutes into the third period. That gave the Hermits life as they looked to get within a goal, but Carter’s goal with 6:04 remaining pushed the advantage back up to three.
Christian Rapattoni added another power-play goal for St. Augustine with 3:24 to go but Zach Johnson’s empty-netter sealed the win.
“We didn’t quit,” Fingerhut said. “We just made some mistakes on the back side (earlier in the game). We had guys in the right position but we just didn’t have sticks on three of the goals. Letting those guys score backdoor goals makes it tough on your goaltender.
“They have good speed but we talk to our defensemen all the time about putting yourself in a position to keep the guy in front of you, don’t get caught flat-footed, don’t get caught playing on your heels. Unfortunately, we had guys there but just did not control the stick and it cost us.”
Grace, who missed the Rams’ first win of the season over Bergen Catholic because of a club commitment, made his presence felt all over the ice. The Gloucester Catholic captain was a rock on defense and also had an assist and three shots on goal.
“He’s our best player,” Tom Bunting said. “He calms everything down in the defensive zone, he creates offense. Jake obviously made a big difference in the game. We didn’t have a lot of power play time today but that’s where you really see his impact. With him up top we have a threat.”
The Rams rebounded from a 3-1 loss to state No. 1 Christian Brothers Academy. They will look to ride the momentum into a busy stretch next week, which includes a game at No. 2 Don Bosco Prep.
“It was important to bounce back,” Talorico said. “We have a big week next week with three games so it’s good to end this week on a good note and carry it into next week.”