The Montclair Kimberly Academy ice hockey team celebrates a goal during the Cougars 6-5 victory over the St. John Vianney Monday evening, Jan. 22 in Montclair.

by Andrew Garda

The Montclair Kimberley Academy Cougars held off St. John Vianney for a 6-5 win Monday at Clary Anderson Arena that almost got away from them.

The Cougars had built what felt like a dominating 4-1 lead over SJV in the third period, only to see it collapse as St. John Vianney forward Brett Schneider beat Cougar goaltender Sebastian Burns on three separate shots to tie the game. Over the final few minutes, both teams traded goals and it looked like MKA was going to squander a big opportunity for a much needed win.

Then, with just 25.2 seconds left in regulation, junior Brian Schindler grabbed a loose puck in front of the net and put in the winning goal.

It was his second of the afternoon, the first coming on a brilliant play that saw him steal a pass in the neutral zone, flash a fake to the goalie’s left side then bury it to his right to put the Cougars up 1-0.

This goal was less elegant, but far more important as it gave the Cougars (4-6-2) the win as well as advanced them in the Egan Cup, which is a six-team round-robin tournament for private schools who aren’t in the elite Gordon Conference. MKA is now 3-1 in Egan Cup games and would finish second if they beat St. Joe’s of Metuchen next week.

The Egan Cup playoffs, which include the top four teams in the standings, will be played Feb. 3 and Feb. 5.

MKA’s Brian Schindler and St. John Vianney’s Rich Kulaszewski battle for the puck during the Cougars 6-5 victory over the Lancers Monday evening, Jan. 22 in Montclair

“He’s an absolute goal scorer,” head coach Tim Cook said. “You can’t teach that, you really can’t. You either have that or you don’t, and he’s got it.”

The win was an important one for a Cougars team that has struggled in close games this season.

“It’s been tough,” Cook said. “We’ve had a number of games where we had an opportunity to win and didn’t. So that’s hurt us.”

This game nearly slipped away as well, but the Cougars were able to hang tough, calm down and find a way to win.

“I thought all our guys battled hard, and did the little things we needed to do to win,” Cook said.

Still, Cook felt that the Cougars had made too many mistakes and penalties were an especially huge factor throughout the game, with a steady stream of Cougars heading to the box. MKA routinely found itself a man short — sometimes two — which disrupted the offensive flow quite a bit.

Despite that, MKA managed to find ways to generate offense, even while killing penalties.

Two of their first three scores were shorthanded goals by freshman Alex Gaffney, both of which occurred during the second period. On his first score, Gaffney stole the puck, skated into the SJV end and flicked it past the goaltender with a nice wrist shot. Exactly two minutes later, Gaffney grabbed the puck again, flew down the ice, flashed one way and shot the other, totally befuddling the goalie as the puck zoomed past him again.

Cook loves what he’s been seeing from Gaffney.

MKA’s Alexandros Gaffney skates behind the St. John Vianney goal during the Cougars 6-5 victory over the Lancers Monday evening, Jan. 22 in Montclair.

“He’s a very skilled player and even more impressive about him is how hard he works, how responsible he is, and how much of a team player,” Cook said. “He is obviously a producer, but he does all the intangible things that separate the really good skilled players from the real game-changers.”

Still, short-handed goals are nice, but not the norm and eventually the stream of penalties were going to hurt the Cougars, which it did.

Given the talent level SJV has, Cook wasn’t surprised at the resiliency of MKA’s opponent.

“They’re a good team and they generate plays,” Cook said. “And that was with missing a lot of their top guys with the flu. One guy with, like, 20 goals, another with 12 goals.”

The Cougars now turn back to getting the job done in a tough McInnis Division. Three of their last five regular season games are against teams in the division, including two games against a red-hot 11-2-2 Montclair High School team as well as one against Livingston, who they played on Wednesday, Jan. 24, and who has amassed a 10-3-4 record this season. While both Livingston and Montclair have been great out of division, neither has dominated within the McInnis.

That leaves room for MKA to make some noise, and perhaps get overlooked because of its record.

Cook won’t look that far ahead though.

“We’re just focusing on one game at a time” Cook said.