by Andrew Garda
As is often the case when Montclair Kimberley Academy and Montclair High School meet, Monday’s battle between the two school’s hockey teams for the Montclair Cup came down to the last minute.
But while MKA pulled its goalie and kept the puck in the Mounties’ end, the Cougars couldn’t get a shot past MHS goalie Gus Bylin and the Mounties took home the cup and a 3-2 victory.
Bylin played very well Monday afternoon, turning aside 21 Cougar shots, including two key stops against MKA star-in-the-making Alex Gaffney. Playing in only his second game with the team, Gaffney showed that he is an electrifying player when he gets the puck on his stick, and the Mounties knew they had to slow him down.
“He’s an immensely talented player,” MHS coach Pat Verney said after the victory. “He’s one of the best skaters I’ve seen since I’ve been here, probably the best pure skater I’ve seen. The D-1s are already knocking at his door, there’s no question, he’s there. He’s a next-level talent. You want to take away time and space on players like that. What we talk about is angling and taking away the middle of the ice. If we’re getting beat, we’re getting beat wide. That happened a few times and he made a few plays where he beat guys and then we had Gus make two big saves on him.”
Verney said the biggest save was probably the first of the two, which occurred in the second period.
“Gaffney beat three players with moves and he got to his backhand,” Verney said. “Gus was there and made a big save.”
The second close call came in the third, and this time the Mounties were able to force a tight angle, which made it easier — though by no means easy — for Bylin to make the stop.
Verney said the problem with facing the Cougars is, you can’t just focus on Gaffney.
“The difficult part of them is, you can check him down and then Oscar Worob and Brian Schindler can score four or five goals in a game,” Verney said.
MKA head coach Tim Cook tipped his cap to the Mounties’ defensive effort.
“They play good team defense, they really pack it in and block shots,” Cook said. “They work hard to clog it up. That’s the style they play and it’s effective.”
For Verney, it’s never just about his goaltender, though Bylin, like everyone who steps in front of the net for Montclair, is an excellent player. Without the defense though, a goalie’s job is much harder.
Will Schiffenhaus and John Painter were a huge reason why the Mounties were able to slow Gaffney, Oscar Worob and Brian Schindler.
“The goal Schiffenhaus scored is nice,” Verney said,”but the defensive shutdown job he did tonight, I thought physically and tactically…was brilliant.”
Schiffenhaus’s night had started off rough, with a penalty just 10 seconds in, but he impressed Verney with his ability to recover his wits and contribute.
“He plays an emotional game,” Verney said. “Sometimes when you’re playing with a guy who is that much of a competitor, you worry about him controlling his emotions. He controlled his emotions and then some, and I thought he was dominant.”
Verney said his other big defender, Painter, has been overlooked too much.
“When everybody looks at us being a defense first team, they look at Schiff because he’s such a presence,” Verney said. “Our best games this year have been games when Painter’s played brilliant. Tonight he wasn’t just good — he was a shutdown defender.”
Without his top defenders playing a great game, Verney said it would be much tougher to win games against a team like MKA.
“Gaffney is a huge difference maker,” he said. “The only game he played in all year was a game where they beat a team which was sixth in the state. Obviously, you have to be concerned about him. And then Oscar Worob and Brian Schindler are phenomenal players, too. Look at those three guys, that’s a really talented, elite group of forwards and I thought in terms of our team defense tonight, we did a good job.”
While the outcome wasn’t in his team’s favor, Cook was happy with the job the Cougars did.
“I thought our effort was there. I thought our guys really brought intensity and we got some really good scoring opportunities. It’s difficult to get chances against them, so we really need to get in front of the goalie with traffic and get in front of his eyes more than we did.”