With three games left in the regular season, the Montclair State University men’s ice hockey team is looking to secure their spot in the Super East Collegiate Hockey League (SECHL) playoffs. But to get in, Montclair State must play their absolute best.
The road to postseason play has not been easy for the Red Hawks, who currently hold a 3-15 record. Head coach Robert Martinez says many of the team’s troubles have stemmed from puck possession and the high rate of turnovers.
“We have a difficult time breaking the puck out of the [defensive] zone, which affects several aspects of the game,” coach Martinez said. “Turnovers create opposing scoring opportunities, shots and sustained pressure in our end. It also prohibits us from getting many offensive chances.”
Montclair State also struggled with penalties, allowing opposing teams to have many power-play opportunities. This further limited their offensive capability.
However, there has been a bright side for this team.
A strong core of seniors have led the Red Hawks on both sides of the ice: senior forward Shawn Meneghin as well as captain and senior forward Ryan Martinez. Meneghin’s two goals against The College of New Jersey (TCNJ) were the deciding factor in a 4-2 victory on Oct. 3. Junior forward Anthony Oliveri has stepped up as well, often facilitating scoring opportunities in addition to scoring goals for the team.
Defensively, captain and senior goaltender Ondrej Smalec III has been credited with keeping the Red Hawks competitive in tight games. In a critical conference matchup against Clarkson University on Nov. 13, he saved 44 out of 45 shots to help carry his team to a 4-1 victory.
Ryan Martinez spoke about how essential the upperclassman have been to this squad developmentally.
“[Smalec III and I] being veterans, we’re both leaders on the team,” he said. “We really try to guide the younger guys in the right direction and hope they hop on board.”
The 2021-22 season has presented a set of unique challenges for Montclair State. Although the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic did not stop the Red Hawks from taking to the ice in the 2020-21 season for several exhibition games, the uncertainty of the situation, as well as the return to league play, has taken a toll on the team this year, according to coach Martinez.
“This season, the team seems distracted by things going back to normal,” coach Martinez said. “That coupled with our first and second-year players getting their first, real test of the normal schedule balancing with hockey, school, work and family obligations. It’s tough.”
In addition, the season is split between the fall and spring semesters, and multiple players such as Meneghin have graduated after the first half of the season, forcing younger players to step up.
In the second semester opening weekend, Montclair State dropped games to William Paterson University and TCNJ, failing to score a goal in either contest.
Although the Red Hawks have faced many challenges throughout the year, both players and coaching staff are optimistic that they can put together a run into the playoffs.
“It’s been a challenging first semester,” Smalec III said. “We knew with the players that we were, unfortunately, losing after the first semester, [that] it was going to be a greater challenge, but despite that and the results from last weekend, I think there’s still plenty of reason to be optimistic going forward [and] leading into the final weekend of games.”
In order to qualify, the Red Hawks must defeat Central Connecticut State University (CCSU) and Marist College in one weekend. Both sit just above them in the SECHL standings. In the season finale, they travel to Sacred Heart University. That string of victories would mean that they leapfrog both CCSU and Marist in the standings, putting Montclair State in the playoffs. Fortunately for them, two of the next three games will be played at home.
Smalec III says the team needs a strong week of practice going into the season’s most critical stretch.
“I think [my teammates] just need to relax,” Smalec III said. “Too many people are trying to do too much, and the second we simplify what we do, the better we are as a team.”
History and experience may favor the Red Hawks as well. Much of the roster played in a similar situation during the last weekend of the 2019-20 season, where the team rallied to secure their spot in the playoffs. Coach Martinez says this year’s team has a very strong chance of doing the same.
“Headed into the last three games, I anticipate that we will get to the postseason and be more competitive,” coach Martinez said. “We do have the potential to be an upset team, we just need to bear down and focus these last three games.”
Seniors like Ryan Martinez are hungry to compete in one last playoff run before graduating. To him, it means everything.
“I’ve been playing this game for 19 years,” he said. “It just means everything to get that one extra ice slot, one extra practice and one extra game.”