By Andrew Garda
Prior to No. 2-seeded Montclair Kimberley Academy’s McInnis Cup game against 3-seeded Wesftield, Cougars head coach Tim Cook remarked that the Blue Devils were an opportunistic group.
“It’ll be fine, and then all of a sudden at the end of a period, they score,” he said.
Opportunistic was exactly the word for the first two goals Westfield scored on their 5-1 win over MKA Wednesday, Feb. 13, at Clary Anderson Arena, during a game where the Cougars never quite got into rhythm while the Blue Devils never fell out of it.
The first goal came on a fast break along the right side of the ice, as Westfield’s Anthony Oliveri took a pass from Alex Park, flashed past the Cougars defense and beat goalie Sebastian Burns.
It happened quickly, one second the Cougars setting up to slow the Westfield advance at center ice, the next the defense caught backpedaling behind the action.
The second goal,by Brendan Kotiga, came just as suddenly. The Cougars had the puck and saw the Blue Devils were trapped in a line change. In their haste to take advantage of that, though, MKA bounced the puck off one of their own players and Westfield picked it up.
The sudden shift had MKA scrambling, the defense in disarray and a mess of players from both teams in front of the net. Westfield fired off several shots, getting the rebounds each time until they finally slipped the puck past Burns.
“That first one, we kind of got lost a little bit in the neutral zone and the puck bounced through and they got a breakaway which they buried,” Cook said. “And the second one they were in our zone, and they generated off the wall and walked in, then went hard to our net.”
Meanwhile, on offense, the Cougars struggled to get going.
MKA was without leading goal-scorer David Chen, who is out with an injury. They still had the two other members of their highly productive front line, but while Oscar Worob and Brian Schindler were game, they just couldn’t finish.
“To be quite honest, not having Chen on that first line really changes things up,” Cook said. “That’s a different line and we’re a different team.”
While it’s very tough to lose a player of Chen’s quality, there were more factors to the offensive issues. Westfield played very disciplined defense, clogging the middle of the ice up and making sure MKA never got a clear shot at the goal.
Any time the Cougars tried to fire the puck in from the point, a Blue Devil was there to block the shot. When MKA tried to close in for a shot in the slot or in front of the net, they found themselves surrounded by defenders.
MKA never really had much of a chance to set up a play, which resulted in less shots than they normally had. Sixteen is usually what the Cougars produce over the course of one, maybe two periods.
Wednesday night, sixteen was the total shots for the game.
“They played really, really well, hats off to Westfield,” Cook said. “They brought a good game plan, and they played hard. Every game they play against us they play that way. They play hard, they play disciplined, they play opportunistic. They clog up the middle, especially in their own zone they don’t let shots through and when they do they have a good goalie.”
The only time MKA was able to find the back of the net was on a Alan Di Geronimo shot with assists by Alex Stetkevych and Aron Dyadyuk. DiGeronimo’s shot beat Duffy high and gave the Cougars some momentum heading into the third period.
Or would have, if MKA hadn’t ended the period with a penalty.
In fact, the Cougars ended each period with a penalty, allowing the Blue Devils to start off with a man-advantage at the top of the second and third periods. While Westfield only scored one power play goal, the Cougars had to start protecting their goal and not attacking the oppositions for two minutes to start each period.
“That’s tough,” Cook said. “The beginning of each period is a momentum swing and they had it because they’re on the power play. Our penalty kill did OK, but it’s tough when you’re in the box.”
While the Cougars offense sputtered, Westfield kept getting good opportunities to score and converting. By the time the final whistle blew, they had scored five times and MKA looked shellshocked.
Now that they are out of the McInnis, the Cougars will look to bounce back in the NJSIAA Non-Public Tournament.
Cook and his staff are looking to fix some of the lapses they saw on Wednesday, get their puck movement back on track and get ready for whomever they face.
More than anything, the coaches want to give their seniors a chance to play as long as possible.
“They’re great kids, a great group, and they’ve really invested in this program and held it together during a few years where we didn’t have as many players as we would have liked,” Cook said. “So I’m hoping they can get rewarded and we can continue playing as long as we can.”
Thursday morning, MKA found out they are the No. 15-seeded team in the NJSIAA Non-Public tournament. They face No. 18-seeded St. Rose at Clary Anderson Arena Monday, with start time yet to be determined.