by Andrew Garda
The Robbinsville Ravens got the early lead against the Montclair Mounties ice hockey team at Clary Anderson Arena on Monday, Mar. 2, 2020, but that didn’t last.
That’s because senior Eamonn Thall took control of the game, scoring four goals and leading the second-seeded Mounties (17-5-2, 10-2-2 NJIIHL) to a 5-1 win over 7-seeded Robbinsville (17-9, 8-4 CVC). Montclair now faces 3-seeded Hunterdon Central in the NJSIAA Public A semifinals on Wednesday, Mar. 4 at Mennen Arena in Morristown.
The 3-seeded Red Devils (12-6-3, 7-2-2 Skyland) outlasted a tough Howell (9-8-7, 2-4-4 Shore) team Monday night, 1-0.
“I mean, a saying that I use a lot is big players play big in big games,” head coach Mark Janifer said after the win. “This was a big game and you can’t play much bigger than that. He just showed everybody what he’s about and how good he is.”
After the game, Janifer spoke to the team about leadership and how any player can lift up a team. Thall was absolutely the example of that against Robbinsville, because he found a way to show the Mounties that they were in control of the game even if they were down 1-0.
“I think that settled us down and we were able to get into our game there. But the goals he scored that first period were huge,” said Janifer. “I think sometimes he gets overlooked or underrated. He’s a damned good player. We let up that first goal and basically, he put the team on his back. A natural hat trick. It doesn’t get any better than that.”
Kellum Foster-Palmer gave Thall a break between the third and fourth goal by beating the Ravens netminder after a very nice feeder pass with 2:58 left in the second period.
As a whole, the Mounties have been on a tear over the past five weeks, compiling a 6-2 record, with their only two losses coming at the hand of Summit, a team they nearly beat in the McInnis finals.
That loss, despite being disappointing, seems to have lit a fire under the Mounties.
“A game like that is very sobering,” Janifer said. “I think we played well enough to win, a couple things didn’t go our way and I think for the whole team, in particular the seniors, you feel the hurt and the disappointment of that type of game.”
At this point in the season, he continued, every loss could represent your last action for the season.
“You start realizing that each game, your next game could be your last game. And I think that’s been a motivating factor for us.”
If that’s the case, it was on display Monday afternoon.
Aside from Thall’s nose for the net, the Mounties played perhaps their most even and effective game of the season, featuring not only their usual stifling defense but a speedy, aggressive and opportunistic offense.
Montclair unleashed a staggering 40 shots against Ravens goalie Mike Zuppa, and during the second period had numerous fast breaks and breakaways which forced Zuppa to make multiple acrobatic and breathtaking saves.
This is a game where Montclair could have easily won 10-1, and from an offensive standpoint they have never looked more dangerous.
Defensively, Lucas Podvey continues to be a brick wall, saving 21 of 22 shots, and denying Robbinsville on several golden opportunities late in the game.
What was most impressive — and could be the key against Hunterdon-Central — is how sharp the flow between offense and defense has been.
Not only is Montclair’s defense gumming up the neutral zone and generating turnovers in their own end, they are seamlessly feeding the front line the puck coming out of their zone and creating opportunities for odd-man rushes and breakaways.
In fact, of the many opportunities for Montclair’s wings and center in the second period, nearly all of them were generated from the defensemen first.
That flow kept the game moving and keeps momentum going in Montclair’s favor.
Montclair also isn’t shy about getting physical, but while earlier in the season penalties were an issue, the Mounties seem to keep their violence more restrained, choosing their moments to check and avoiding the penalty minutes which have made their lives tougher in the past.
“I think that the team is really peaking at the right time,” said Janifer. “We’ve had high expectations for what we might be able to accomplish coming into the season and we’ve been working hard and getting better and trying to play better each game. That’s all we’re trying to do right now because we know each game, the competition level is going to rise.”
This is when a team wants to be playing its best, of course, in the county and state tournaments. Janifer hopes that his team still has more to show New Jersey, though.
“I hope we haven’t played our best hockey yet. I hope we still have some better hockey in front of is because we’re going to need it to have success in these next rounds.”
They’ll need it as the Red Devils are on a hot streak themselves, winning ten of their last thirteen games, scoring 56 goals while allowing just 26.
Of course, Montclair is right there with them, scoring 58 goals while only seeing the opposition score 21.
“Hunterdon Central, they are good,” Janifer said. “You’re going to have to play your best game in order to win a game like that. So hopefully, we’re peaking at the right time and can keep this up and continue playing better than we have the game before it.”