By Mike Gurnis
MORRIS TWP. — Over the past couple of seasons, Chatham has established itself as a program that no matter what happens in the regular season, seems to find a way to adapt to the tight-checking style of postseason hockey.
It has proven that in its runs to the Public C final the past two seasons, especially in 2018-19 when the team needed an at-large bid just to qualify for the state tournament.
And if the way it played in its first postseason game of the year on Tuesday night was any indication, the fresh start that the playoffs provide could yield yet another deep run for Chatham.
The Cougars (10-8-2), seeded fourth in the Mennen Cup, got two quick goals in the third period before locking things down defensively in the final minutes to secure a 2-1 win over fifth seed Morristown in the first round of the Mennen Cup at Mennen Arena.
“I just said in the room before the game that I have all the confidence in the world in this group to make a run, whether it’s in the Mennen Cup or states,” Chatham coach Brendon Herr said. “I’ve believed that from day one. We have a mature group, and they know when it comes to playoff time that it’s time to step it up and play at a bit more of a faster pace, and I thought we did that tonight. I think we’re trending in the right direction, we’re playing better as we go on here and that’s what we’re looking for come playoff time.”
After a scoreless first two periods which saw a goaltending duel between Chatham’s Jennifer Olnowich and Morristown’s Dylan Peck, Chatham quickly took control in the third as Ryan Sordillo’s point shot was tipped home by Doyle Curry just 3:17 into the period. Then, Declan Curry scored right off the face-off after Sordillo won the draw four minutes later, to put Chatham up by two.
But things are never easy come playoff time, and Morristown certainly was not going to back down. Conor Critchley found the back of the net with 2:11 left, which put his team right back in it. Chatham almost immediately iced the puck after the ensuing face-off, and Morristown called timeout.
Morristown coach Bobby Jones opted to pull the goalie for the extra attacker for the final 2:03 of the game, but Chatham’s defense allowed few, if any shots to get through, and kept most of the play in the neutral zone.
“We tried to not let them have possession of the puck there in those last two minutes,” Herr said. “We tried to stay aggressive on it. I said in the timeout there to just keep things simple in the two most important areas of the ice, in between the blue lines, and we should be fine.”
Chatham goalie Jennifer Olnowich was strong throughout the game, turning aside 23 shots. Despite surrendering the goal late, she made a big save in the game’s final seconds to help preserve the win.
On the final face-off with seven seconds left, a point shot got through traffic to Morristown’s Jack McKenna at the side of the net. But Olnowich made the pad save and sent the rebound off to the side.
“We iced it, and it came back down for a face-off and it went up to their point,” Olnowich said. “The puck got through close to the net, and he pulled it to the side and tried to stick it down low, but I got my pad down and it went into the corner, and the game ended.”
Herr added: “Again, Jennifer made some key saves at key times and kept us in it. We just needed to win by one and we did.”
It was exactly the type of win that can be expected in postseason play: a tight game, in which the team gets strong defensive play late and key saves at the right times. It’s a formula that Chatham has followed often in the past two seasons, and one that it will need more of if it is looking to make a deep run.
While it recently suffered a five-game losing streak in which it went four games without finding the back of the net, positive signs started to emerge for Chatham, according to Herr. The final game of that streak was a 4-2 loss to state-ranked Rumson-Fair Haven, before rallying from a 3-1 deficit to topple a strong Northern Highlands team, 4-3.
Now, it will get a chance to take on Morristown-Beard in the semifinals on Thursday at 6:15. Morristown-Beard swept the two regular season meetings by a combined score of 11-2, but all of that goes out the window in a winner-take-all scenario, and this Chatham team is confident that it could be a different story this time around.
“For our confidence, it’s huge,” Herr said. “A win against Northern Highlands was really big, after going six games without a win. So that built a little bit of confidence up, and we get another shot at Morristown-Beard which is what we want.”
Olnowich added: “I think it’s great momentum going into states and the later games in the Mennen Cup. We had a little adversity towards the middle of the season, but I think this is the perfect time to pick it up and start rolling.”
C — Doyle Curry (Ryan Sordillo, Declan Curry) 11:43
C — Declan Curry (Ryan Sordillo) 7:38
M — Conor Critchley (Harry Santen) 2:11
Shots on goal: Chatham 27, Morristown 23
Saves: Jennifer Olnowich (Chatham) 22, Dylan Peck (Morristown) 25