by Andrew Garda
Morristown — It took a goal by senior captain Kellum Foster-Palmer and an extra 7:20 of hockey to do it, but the Montclair Mounties ice hockey team is heading to the NJSIAA Public A Finals at The Prudential Center after a 3-2 overtime victory over Hunterdon Central on Wednesday, March 4, 2020.
It’s the first state finals appearance for the program since 1998 and they will face top-seeded Morris Knoll.
The game winner came as Montclair was on the power-play in overtime, and in the midst of a deluge of shots — Montclair out-shot the Red Devils 9-0 in overtime — the Mounties managed to pepper Hunterdon Central’s Jack Menichillo with.
“We’re on the power-play and it’s a huge momentum swing in OT whenever you get a power-play,” Foster-Palmer said after the win. “Obviously, it’s a good chance to score.”
The Red Devils had cleared the puck, but Montclair, whose defense has been excellent in generating offensive chances from their own end, moved it quickly out of their zone and up ice.
“We’re regrouping, I saw the opportunity to cut up the ice as my teammate, Brett [Janifer] had chipped it off the wall,” he continued. “I was streaming down the right side, and as I picked up my head, I saw that the middle was open. So, I faked outside, moved inside, picked my head up and saw that low right, as the goalie was moving across, was open and just prayed to God and whipped it back.”
Foster-Palmer’s aim was true, and the Montclair student section lost its mind as the team celebrated on the ice.
“It was just an unbelievable, breathtaking moment. I’m still in shock. It was amazing,” Foster-Palmer said.
🚨🚨 Montclair wins it in overtime on a power-play goal and advances to the Public A final! Kellum Foster-Palmer plays the hero and snaps it home from the slot @MHS_Ice_Hockey @AndrewKoobHS pic.twitter.com/AskVB0rKJ6
— Brian Bobal (@BrianBobalHS) March 5, 2020
The moment almost didn’t happen.
Montclair shot out to an early lead on a Brett Janifer goal just 18 seconds into the first period when he converted a George Osterberg pass to beat Menichillo. Then, just three minutes later, Mark Rechan made it 2-0 with an assist by Cody Brennan.
HC was clearly rattled, and the Mounties continued to press the advantage, but they were unable to convert again despite a 7-4 shot advantage. Hunterdon Central settled down, and in the second period the shots were nearly even.
Montclair’s defense stymied the Red Devils during the first two periods, and much like during their win over Robbinsville on Monday, was able to move the puck smoothly out of their own end to create opportunities on offense.
However, Montclair seemed somewhat content to hold off the opposition, not take too many chances and therefore avoid big mistakes which might erase their lead.
That let the Red Devils stay within striking distance, however, and they cut the lead to one when Peyton Miller scored off a Nicolas Mastropaolo pass with 11:01 left in regulation. HC nearly tied the game a little while later, but Lucas Podvey made an unbelievable save diving from post to post across an empty net to preserve the lead.
Unfortunately, HC equalized the game moments later when Mastropaolo found Darin Michaels, who beat Podvey with 5:13 left in the game.
The Red Devils were bolstered by the goals and pressed the Mounties defense hard, but Podvey did what he has all season long and made several amazing saves to keep the score even and get to overtime.
“Today, in that second half of the third period, if he isn’t who he is we lose that game,” Mounties head coach Mark Janifer said of Podvey. “He made some great saves to keep us in that game and allow us to get to that overtime.”
Janifer, as he has all season long, praised his senior leaders for what they accomplished Wednesday night, from Podvey’s stellar goaltending, to Foster-Palmer’s timely goal, to Eamonn Thall’s feeder pass to set that goal up.
“We’ve had great senior leadership this year,” he said. “Obviously with Lucas in the net and the games that he’s won. A game ago, when we needed a big boost it was a senior, Eamonn, who came through. Today, we needed that boost and it was another senior captain, Kellum, who came through. So, it doesn’t get any better than that.”
It’s also a much-improved outcome from the last time they watched a lead slip away and had to go into overtime. That time, against Summit in the McInnis Cup final, Montclair couldn’t hang on.
Foster-Palmer said that loss is what has driven this team since.
“Unfortunately, that game we lost, but what drives us in the states is we never wanted to feel like that again. It was so devastating for our team, but it brought us together. And it lit a fire under us that we just needed to win and never, ever wanted to feel like that again. I think it was humbling, that loss, and it’s propelling us to a great states run.”
Along with senior leadership and great timing by individuals in big moments, Montclair has been bolstered by a very dedicated and intense student-section.
Montclair came out in force for the team on Wednesday and Foster-Palmer said it had a big impact for the team, especially after watching the two-goal lead melt away in the third period.
“To say it was helpful would be an understatement,” he said of the fan support. “When we walked back out and they all showed us love and they were all here to support us, we realized that in OT, we had to go. We had go get it, for our city. It was just something that we had to do.”
Foster-Palmer said seeing the support in the stands reminds the team who they represent on the ice.
“When you realize that you have a whole town on your back, and when you can actually look up and see them, it gives you a sense of responsibility. Like, this is something that I need to do.”
Montclair has one more thing they need to do, and that’s face Morris Knolls Monday afternoon.
They have their work cut out for them, as the Golden Eagles dismantled Jackson Liberty in the game before Montclair’s, pounding the Lions for an 8-1 victory. Morris Knolls appears to be a team which overpowers the opposition with offense, and they can score goals in bunches.
Montclair, while potent offensively, is built from the goal out, and has one of the best defenses in the state.
It’s the immovable object versus the unstoppable force, and they’ll collide Monday at “The Rock” when the puck drops at 4:15.