by Andrew Garda
WEST ORANGE — The Montclair High School ice hockey team kicked off its 2017-18 season with a 0-0 tie against the Livingston Lancers on Monday, Nov. 28. While many might think a tie isn’t the best start for a team, the Mounties and coach Pat Verney know it’s a very big first step.
“We play in a six-team division, and it’s one of the more competitive divisions,” Verney said after the game. “Livingston will be one of the top four teams in the division, and we were right there with them.”
In addition to the Lancers, the McInnis Division also contains Summit, Montclair Kimberley Academy and Westfield, all of which are considered top teams.
Walking away with a tie against one of those teams may not be the ultimate goal, but it’s a good start.
Especially since the Mounties spent a lot of time killing penalties.
“They’ve killed us, to be honest, over the last four or five years with an excellent power play,” Verney said of Livingston. “One of our game keys going into [the game] was, we need to neutralize it. The first way you do that is by not going into the penalty box. We didn’t do that today. We were in the box a ton.”
They were in the box right away too, with a five-minute major called just 50 seconds into the first period. Despite that — and multiple other penalties throughout the night — the Mounties were perfect in shutting down Livingston’s power play.
“We did a good job responding [to the penalties], and did a phenomenal job on penalty kill. We really limited their quality chances on the power play, which is a huge part of this game because they really do have one of the best power plays around.”
Verney felt that his seniors really led the way against the Lancers’ attack when the Mounties were shorthanded. They’d seen what Livingston could do with a man advantage, and they could counter it.
In fact, the Mounties spent a fair amount of time in the Lancers’ end, even when Livingston was on the power play. And when the teams were even, the Mounties really did a good job moving the puck and attacking the Lancers’ net.
“We did a tremendous job in the first period and the first couple of shifts of the game, on 5-on-5, we held territory. Then [again] in the third period, we got back to playing 5-on-5 and we had some territorial success.”
When the two sides were even, the Mounties tried to establish their forecheck and up the tempo and pace of the game. They tried to get to the puck first both in their own end as well as in the offensive zone, to get Livingston backpedaling and on their heels and create opportunities for the Mounties forwards to generate shots on the net.
The constant penalties on both sides made it hard to create game-flow, though, and so MHS never really found a way to get the puck in the back of the net.
Luckily the Lancers also failed to do so, although they had some opportunities.
“In the first period, we had two defensive breakdowns, one that led to a breakaway,” Verney pointed out. “And Gus Bylin made two saves in the first period that were phenomenal. Then he made one of the better saves I’ve seen in the second period, where he had to spring and go backwards practically to make it.”
Bylin is just one of four goalies Verney can turn to this season, and while there will be minutes for everyone, he is the main guy the Mounties will rely on.
“Gus has the ability to play college hockey,” Verney said of his lead netminder. “He’s that good. We haven’t been able to say that about all our players we coach at Montclair, but Gus has a future in this sport.”
Behind him are Lucas Podvey, who backed Bylin up on Monday, Graham Roy and Sally Solotaroff. Verney said all four are capable of stepping in and as long as there is communication about who is doing what, and where they all stand, it’s a good problem to have so much talent in net.
In front of the net, the defense will enter around two lacrosse players — Will Schiffenhaus and John Painter.
“Schiffenhaus is going to have to eat a tremendous amount of minutes,” Verney said. “I thought he was terrific all game long, but he took a cross-check penalty late and we had to kill one with about four minutes [left in the game] But [the team] owed it to him because he was being a warrior all night with the way he was playing.”
Along with Painter, Schiffenhaus will carry the load on defense, helping limit any clear shots on goal and feeding the forwards.
At forward the main line will consist of captain Patrick Ledgett at center with Dan Korenbaum and Eamon Thall at either wing.
Verney is incredibly high on Ledgett’s potential this season.
“I think he’s got to be the best two-way player in the division night in and night out. In my eyes, I think he’s there. When you talk about a forward who can produce offensively, and understands the finer points of team defense? That’s Patrick Ledgett.”
Ledgett, Schiffenhaus and Bylin will form the foundation for the Mounties this season. They won’t be the only players who have to step up, but they’ll lead by example and help build the game the way Verney needs it played.
“We’re not a pretty team on paper. We have to have a blue-collar mentality where and we play to our strength. Prioritize defense. Goaltending. And then we figure out a way to manufacture offense. That’s a big piece of where we’re trying to be.”