St. Augustine ice hockey coach Ralph Triboletti believes that when the Hermits suffered their first loss of the season to rival Bishop Eustace last month, his players "put too much into the game mentally."
Yet, looking toward Friday's 4:30 p.m. rematch at the Flyers Skate Zone in Pennsauken, the coach didn't shy away from hyping the Southern Conference Red Division clash between two of the state's top 10 teams.
"It's always a big game - there's no doubt it's a huge rivalry," Triboletti said. "And at this point, we have to establish that we can compete in and win big games."
Triboletti said the root of his team's mental block against Eustace is Crusaders goalie Colin Saltiel, who made 31 saves in a 3-2 win over St. Augustine on Jan. 13.
"Saltiel always seems to come up big against us, and when we put 33 shots on him and only came away with two goals, that shook our confidence," the coach said. "We like to spread the ice on offense and work the puck around, and for the most part, it's worked because we're averaging seven goals per game. But after that [first] loss, we've lost two more - and they've been in low-scoring games."
Center Dom Morrone and fellow junior Rob Baskow, a right winger, pace the attack for the 10th-ranked Hermits (11-3 overall, 10-1 division), who honored their seniors and showed off their firepower in a 9-2 romp over Middletown South on Friday.
"That was a good game for us to get ready for Eustace," Triboletti said. "We were able to get playing time for a lot of players, and we put the puck in the net."
Bishop Eustace (11-4-2, 7-2-1) is coming off a 5-1 win at Red Bank Catholic on Friday that extended the Crusaders' unbeaten streak to nine games. The surge has elevated Eustace to fifth in the state rankings - an all-time high for the program this late in a season.
"We started the season a little slow and now we've gone on a bit of a tear," coach Mike Green said. "But all that goes out the window when we get together with St. Augustine. They're still leading the division and we still consider ourselves as the underdog."
The Crusaders may be trailing in the standings, but they have benefited recently by getting several players back from injuries.
"This game could give us a preview of the division [playoff] championship," Green said. "I hope - no - I know my kids have a great deal of respect for their talent. I know [St. Augustine] will be ready for us. It's going to be an emotional contest because both schools get great support from their fans."