On paper, the Fair Lawn High School Ice Hockey team looks much improved.
They're scoring more goals per game and surrendering fewer. They're third in the division and have nearly equaled their divisional win total from a year ago. They even already punched their ticket to the Bergen County Tournament after failing to receive an invite last season.
But it won't be clear just how much this year's team has improved until they face off with Ridgewood this Saturday.
Despite their hot start, the Cutters have yet to beat an opponent with a winning record. Paramus Catholic, who dropped Fair Lawn 4-2 in the second game of the year, is the only winning team they've even faced.
The Maroons, who also lost to Paramus Catholic but have won handily in all of their other divisional games, should serve as a better bellwether of Fair Lawn's progress. A win Saturday would solidify Fair Lawn as a force to be reckoned with in the Big North Conference.
Coach Brack Healy said there's no doubt in his guys' minds that they're up for the challenge.
"I'm fortunate enough to coach a very confident group of hockey players," said Healy, who is anxiously awaiting the Cutters' two upcoming games with Ridgewood and their rematch with Paramus Catholic. "They think they can compete with anyone."
Healy believes his squad has been successful this year because they've completely bought into his system and are playing with a team-first mentality.
"This is a really tight-knit group," he said. "They respect each other and love playing together. Our lines have found chemistry and they really do a great job of playing a team game."
There may be no better example of a player who's bought into the team-first approach than dynamic forward Justin Ritter.
Ritter burst onto the scene as a sophomore last year with a team-leading 19 goals and 35 points, but he's sacrificed some of that goal scoring glory this season for the sake of the team. While Ritter leads the team in points again this year, he's done so primarily by registering a huge number of assists.
"His scoring is down a little but that's because he has been totally unselfish and is setting up his teammates," explained Healy, who called Ritter "one of the best forwards in the division" when he's hot, and said he still expects him to pass his goal total from last year.
If Healy is right, Ritter likely won't be the only Cutter who sets a career-high in goals. The team's scoring is up by more than a goal per game this year, a statistic that Healy, who emphasizes defense, said he finds most impressive about his team.
"Last year we struggled to put goals on the board, but this year we have seen a drastic improvement in scoring," he said. "Our system play has been tremendous so we have been able to spend time [in practice] working on scoring in transition and our play around the net."
Senior Kevin Carney, one of the Cutters' emotional leaders, leads the team in scoring with 11 goals, followed by Mark Williams (7), Ritter (6) and freshman Joey Ferrante (5), whose play Healy said has been a pleasant surprise.
"Joey Ferrante was someone I expected to come in and make an immediate impact for us but I guess I'm surprised at how well he has adapted to high school hockey," Healy said. "He is a big, strong kid who has a lot of potential and I know he is only going to keep getting better as the season goes along."
For all the scoring the Cutters have been doing, they wouldn't be where they are without goaltender Garret Baldacci's solid play between the pipes. Baldacci, who had never started a varsity game before this year, has limited opponents to fewer than two goals per game on average.
Win or lose against Ridgewood, Healy said he's been pleased with how his team plays the game.
"They are an unselfish team that puts team play over individual statistics," he said. "They have all bought into the system and I could not be any prouder of these guys."