Having lost only a handful of seniors from last year’s 11-10-5 squad that made the state playoffs, Fair Lawn’s hockey team and its second-year head coach Brack Healy have high hopes heading into this season.
Healy expects the Cutters to finish in the top half of the nine-team Big North Gold Division. Possibly higher if all goes right.
“If everything falls into place we could surprise a lot of teams and be a dark horse to win our division,” Healy wrote in an email.
The Cutters didn’t disappoint in their first regular season action over the weekend, notching victories against Dumont on Friday and River Dell on Saturday, thanks to stellar netminding from senior Josh Sarna and timely third period goals by senior captain Matt Hearon (against Dumont) and sophomore winger Justin Ritter (against River Dell).
Like last season, a strong defense and opportunistic offense will be the team’s calling card.
“We sport a defense-first system,” Healy wrote in an email. “Expect a lot of low-scoring games when Fair Lawn is playing.”
“When we get our chances, we seem to be able to put the puck in the net,” he continued. “But we can’t go out there and play teams 6-5 games. We just don’t have that firepower.”
Senior Andy Chelstowski, junior Sean Milnes and sophomore Matt Wilson anchor the Cutters vaunted defense, which lost standouts Jeff Frenkel and Kevin Northrup to graduation.
Sarna, originally slated to be the backup goaltender, has been excellent in net since replacing senior Dan Prigge, who’s out with a concussion and yet to play this year.
On the other end of the ice, Healy expects senior center Jon Polyak to be the team’s top offensive player.
Polyak, who led the team in assists last season, will be complemented by Hearon, Ritter and junior center Kevin Carney, who all scored goals over the weekend.
Healy said he also expects a heavy infusion of talented freshmen to be a shot in the arm for the program this year and in years to come. Of the nine freshmen practicing with the team, three should log significant varsity minutes, including forwards Mark Williams and Frankie Maneri.
Healy said his familiarity with the freshman, many of whom he coached last year with Fair Lawn's Youth Ice Hockey Association, has eased their transition to varsity hockey.
"They knew me as a coach, I knew them as a player, so it was a lot smoother than you would have if you had no idea who was coming to the program," Healy said. "And a lot of them improved, which is obviously a good thing."
Healy anticipates another one of the squad's strengths will again be its special teams play.
“We excelled last season killing off 90 percent of penalties and averaging less than three penalties per game,” he wrote in an email. “We are a very disciplined team and we were penalized the least amount of any team last year in all of the Big North divisions.”
It’s that sort of discipline that Healy has emphasized since he took over the team’s helm last season after a year leading Montclair Kimberley Academy.
“I demand their best effort at all times.” Healy said of his players. “I’m really no nonsense. I don’t put up with dumb penalties, laziness, poor work ethic. When they play for us they’re going to have to work harder or they’re not going to play.”
Thankfully, Healy said, these kids have worked extremely hard.
The Cutters play their next game Monday night against West Essex at Floyd Hall Arena in Little Falls. The puck drops at 7:10 p.m.