Topping last year’s incredible success – 19 wins, a 20-game unbeaten streak to open the season, a division title and a run to the final four of the state tournament – would be a challenge for the Montclair High School ice hockey team even before you consider that the program graduated nearly 90 percent of its offense.
But there’s a palpable feeling of excitement around the 2016-17 Mounties, a feeling that head coach Pat Verney chalks up to his team’s unified sense of identity and purpose.
“It’s a different kind of season,” said Verney, who posted a 126-72-24 record over his first nine seasons with MHS. “We’re not going to win a lot of games 8-6, you know, we’re gonna be playing a lot of 1-0, 2-1 games. But I think the kids recognize that, they embrace that identity. They get excited about the little plays that don’t show up in the scoresheet, and those little plays become addictive. They feed off it. They kind of take pride in knowing that we’re a frustrating team to play against. This kind of team can be a lot of fun when everyone understands and believes in what we’re doing, and I think we’re there.”
The Mounties don’t have the kind of firepower and depth to dominate as they did a year ago. But they do have enough, Verney says, to be a very interesting team this season, led by a star goaltender in senior captain Ondrej Smalec, and backed up by a scrappy, physical defense whose sole focus is on frustrating opponents.
The early season results bear out how well that strategy has been executed. The Mounties have two wins and two ties in their first five games, and while they’ve scored just six total goals, they’ve allowed only five.
AT A GLANCE
Last season: 19-2-3 overall record, 12-0-2 conference (1st place) Playoffs: McInnis Cup semifinalist, NJSIAA Public A semifinalist
Montclair has the luxury of five legitimate varsity goaltenders, with the senior captain Smalec leading the way. A four-year starter who has saved better than 94 percent of shots each of the last two years, Smalec figures to be among the best in the state.
Already this season, the senior has had some very impressive performances, stopping 43 shots in a 1-1 tie with Livingston Nov. 28, and making 30 saves in the Mounties’ 3-1 win over Nutley this past Saturday. The Nutley win was Smalec’s 42nd victory as Montclair’s starting goalie, two shy of what Verney believes is the school record, held by 2011 MHS alum Brandon Gaetjens.
“Everything we do starts with Ondrej,” Verney says. “If we win, we’re going to be about limiting transition opportunities, letting Ondrej see shots, and building from there. I think the world of Ondrej, and I think it speaks volumes that we made him a captain. I don’t think I’ve ever even considered having a goalie as captain, because they’re out there in the crease all game, they’re not on the bench with that style of leadership. But Ondrej is so committed to this program, and his drive is so great that his leadership is unquestioned.”
Behind Smalec is a talented group of young goalies who will battle for playing time. Freshman Gus Bylin stepped in on short notice before posting a shutout in a win over Verona-Glen Ridge last Tuesday.
Bylin, Lucas Podvey, Graham Roy and Sally Solotaroff-Webber are all capable of playing on the varsity level, and give the Mounties as much depth as they’ve ever had at the position.
One of the most exciting prospects on this team is the Mounties’ one-two punch of sophomore Will Schiffenhaus and freshman Kellum Foster-Palmer, who have gotten off to a fantastic start as the main defensive pairing. Both have seen the lion’s share of minutes in the opening few weeks of the season, with Schiffenhaus in particular routinely playing around 40 minutes (out of a possible 45) per game, according to Verney.
John Painter is the third defenseman, providing quality minutes in relief of the top two.
“Will has gone from a freshman who belonged on the ice physically to being just a dominant sophomore for us,” Verney said. “Physically, positionally, he’s been a monster for us. And Kellum is unbelievably promising, because he is in there with guys who are two, three years older and he’s hanging in. He can generate offense for us, he knows when to pick spots. The two of them combined, I’d put them up there with anyone, and it’s exciting to know we have them together for two more years after this season.”
Both defensemen also chipped in on offense in the win over Nutley Saturday, contributing an assist.
Montclair scored 84 goals last season, but the majority of that production came from the team’s dominant ‘big three,’ comprised of then-seniors Remy Parker (34 goals, 20 assists), Michael Gerne (18 G, 22 A) and Brock Bowers (9 G, 30 A). Conrad Sarbak is the leading returning scorer (3 G, 2 A), and he was slated to key Montclair’s top offensive line before he went down with an injury in the win over Verona last weekend.
But MHS is likely to get most of its goals in scrappy fashion, winning the little battles around goal. Junior Pat Ledgett, the team’s alternate captain, is possibly the team’s most skilled offensive player. But it’s his willingness to get down and dirty, playing offense and defense, that makes him so crucial to Montclair’s ethos, Verney says.
If a goal-scorer is to emerge, it might come from returning letterwinners Cary Collucci (2 goals this season), Daniel Korenbaum and Jake Skorzewski (who had a key insurance goal in the win over Verona). Or it may possibly be promising freshman Ben Wakefield, who made a big impact this past Saturday night, scoring two goals in the 3-1 victory over Nutley.
Rounding out the forwards who will see ice time this season are Miles Bylin, Alex Newkirk, Christian Cornelius, Vin Pagnotta, Eamon Thall, Aaron Vos and Cody Brennan.
Montclair has already played four of its 10 games in the New Jersey Ice Hockey League’s McInnis Division, a realigned league combining the top four Essex County teams from a season ago – MHS, Montclair Kimberley Academy, Livingston and Verona – and added a pair of strong Union County programs, Summit and Westfield.
MHS and MKA will renew their crosstown rivalry Jan. 6 and Jan. 27, both at Clary Anderson Arena, while the Mounties will get their first shot at division favorite Summit Tuesday, Dec. 20, at Warinanco Rink in Roselle.
All six teams in the division will take part in the season-ending McInnis Cup tournament, which is slated to end Feb. 18. MHS is looking for its first postseason cup championship since 2008.
Other season highlights include MHS hosting its annual eight-team holiday tournament, the Clary Anderson Holiday Invitational, from Dec. 27-30, and a Dec. 23 road game against Middletown North, a Public B semifinalist last season.