By Andrew Garda
The Montclair High School hockey team wasn’t sure they were going to get a season this winter, and with it a chance to build on their 2019-20 success.
Last year saw MHS compile a 18-6-2 record, culminating in a great run in the NJSIAA Public A Tournament and a finals game at the Prudential Center. They suffered a heartbreaking loss in overtime to Morris Knolls, but that didn’t diminish the shine on a great year.
Less than a week after that 3-2 loss, the full force of COVID-19 hit, and the nation shut down.
While spring sports were canceled, the NJSIAA managed to cobble together a successful 2020 fall season and is now ready to try and repeat the process for winter sports.
“I’m just glad they’re getting to play,” said head coach Mark Janifer, who was named the NJ.com Ice Hockey Coach of the Year last season.
This year will definitely be different and challenging. There will be no spectators, though MHS is working on a schedule to stream the home games from Clary Anderson Arena. As schools don’t own the buildings hockey is played in, they have to be even more careful due to a lack of control in terms of cleaning and access.
Players will not use locker rooms, and will show up ready to play in their gear. They cannot enter the rink until about 15 minutes before the game. There will be no more than 15 games total as well, and limited practice.
Restrictions aside, Janifer is especially grateful after watching so many seniors, some of whom were his hockey players, lose out on their final spring sports season.
“You know, I still get sick thinking of those seniors in the spring last year,” he said. “[Sports like] baseball or lacrosse, who didn’t have a season at all. That must be so tough, to build up to being a senior and then just not getting an opportunity to finish up your career. This is going to be the [end of their] career for most, if not all of these guys. That’s it.”
Janifer knows that starting the season and finishing it are two different things in a pandemic, and the key to the latter is his team staying focused off the ice as well as on, something he saw firsthand when he attended several boys and girls soccer games as they hurtled toward state titles.
“The soccer was strong for me,” he said. “You can tell when the kids are having that type of fun and playing for each other. Every team, you try to manufacture it, but when it’s genuine it’s about as good as it can get. We have that on our hockey team this year.”
Janifer knows it when he sees it. The chemistry, togetherness and willingness to play above and beyond their limits was a hallmark of the Mounties’ 2019-20 season. This year, wins and potential playoffs — the McInnis Cup playoffs are slated to happen, but there will be no state tournament — aren’t the only thing at stake.
Just finishing the season hinges on good decisions and avoiding the COVID-19 shutdowns that ended fall seasons for multiple teams outside of Montclair.
“Part of being on the team is being responsible and understanding you’re not going to be reckless, that you’re not going to a party with 50 kids packed into a basement, not wearing masks,” Janifer said. “At this point you’re not just impacting yourself, you’re impacting the whole team. Literally, if you get shut down for two weeks, I mean, a third of your season is gone.”
Janifer said a lot of his players know boys from the soccer team very well, and they saw how focused that team was and how they were willing to put short-term gain like parties and traveling aside for their friends and team.
“This hockey team is going to have that,” he said. “These guys are genuinely friends. A lot of the guys on the team hang out, even if it’s not something the team sponsors. They’re just friends that are hanging out all the time anyway.”
In the fall, that sort of bonding and friendship resulted in two soccer championships, two cross-country county titles and a deep run into the state tournament by field hockey.
Janifer believes his team can do the same.
Changing of the guard
Bonding is nice, but you have to play games as well.
A lot of the Mounties’ lineup will have familiar names on it, but one notable absence is goaltender Lucas Podvey.
A stalwart presence in net the last two seasons and a huge reason for the Mounties’ run last year, Podvey graduated in June and will be playing lacrosse for Lycoming College this spring.
That leaves a rather sizable hole in net, and in a Mounties program that traditionally builds from the goalie out — focusing on a strong defense first and foremost — it’s the top priority for Janifer and his staff.
In public high school hockey, goaltending on a team is feast or famine. Several years ago, Janifer said, MHS had four goalies at once who he said would have been starters on any team they faced. The last two years it was all Podvey, who had a 92.96 save percentage over that stretch.
Now Janifer expects to rotate several goalies in. Given the short season, which currently consists of 10 games and any playoff matches, he doesn’t have much time to adjust. So he may just go with the hot hand.
The team knows there will be an adjustment period in net, so the defense is expected to step up.
Senior leadership will be important, so guys like James Kaz and Jared Topf will be anchors, along with junior Benji Peiffer. All three are returning starters.
“They’re going to have to step up their play,” Janifer said. “Also other guys that were on the roster that didn’t get as much playing time last year are going to have to step up and have more of a contribution this year than when they did last year.”
Janifer still feels the Mounties will be a defensive powerhouse this season.
He’s also expecting to build on the offensive firepower from last year.
Montclair took some people by surprise in 2019-20, as their 87 total goals was a significant jump from the 64 the previous year. Nobody seemed to expect the defense-first Mounties to average over three goals a game.
Leading the way will be someone Janifer is very familiar with, his son, Brett. The younger Janifer led the team with 21 goals last season, the second season in a row he did so. He has scored 38 goals with 29 assists and will have to do more, as the team will miss the 20 goals Eamonn Thall took with him when he graduated last spring.
While expectations are high for Brett, coach Janifer says he expects help to appear.
“We’re going to need him to maintain that pace this year, but we do have some other really bona-fide offensive weapons,” Janifer said. “I think this year is a year that a few of those guys are going to have to break out.”
One place where help will be coming for his son is fellow senior George Osterberg. The two have played on the same line before, and Janifer said they have tremendous chemistry.
Junior Mark Rechen is also a player to watch, according to the coach.
“I think this is a year where Mark is going to come into his own, and he has great offensive potential,” Janifer said.
“The seniors and the juniors in particular are really going to have to step up and perform more than they did last year. They’re definitely capable of doing that.”