By Mike Gurnis
MORRIS TWP. — Injuries and illnesses have wreaked havoc on Chatham’s lineup throughout the course of the 2021-22 season.
After a 3-2 start to the year, Chatham went into Monday night’s game with Madison with just one win in its previous 10 games, with its hopes for qualifying for the Mennen Cup as well as the state tournament in serious jeopardy.
But on Monday night, it accomplished one of those two. In what was for all intents and purposes a play-in game for the Mennen Cup between the fourth and fifth-place teams, Chatham got out to a strong start and kept its foot on the gas in a 6-1 win over Madison at Mennen Arena.
The win gave Chatham a season sweep against Madison, after also knocking it off, 2-0 on Jan. 3. It guaranteed itself a spot in the Mennen Cup, as it is now guaranteed to finish in no worse than fourth place in the division. It currently holds a 2-4 divisional record with two games left.
“It feels really good, because we’ve been on quite a bit of a losing streak here,” freshman Matt Nacinovich said. “It feels really good to finally get a win and get into the Mennen Cup, and maybe do some damage in the Mennen Cup.”
It also came on Senior Night for Chatham, where the team celebrated its six seniors, which gave even more meaning to the win in what has been a difficult season.
“It’s a credit to our seniors,” Chatham coach Brendon Herr said. “Not just the seniors, the good leadership group of our captains, they’ve kind of kept the train on the tracks here so far. Yes, it’s been a tough year, and you’re always hoping for better. But hopefully this is a big turning point here. Once you get in the Mennen Cup, anything can happen, and we’re happy to qualify tonight. So we’ll take this one in, and get back to work tomorrow.”
While the night belonged to the seniors, the scoresheet mostly belonged to the underclassmen.
Freshman Matthew Nacinovich continued his strong rookie campaign by getting the scoring started with a breakaway 6:03 into the game. Senior Danny Koehler followed that up with a goal in the final minute of the first, before junior Ryan Burke made it 3-0 early in the second.
While Madison’s John Rusen gave the Dodgers some life and cut the deficit to two with 4:24 to go in the second, Chatham sophomore Connor Gilleece along with Nacinovich both scored before the end of the period to make it 5-1. Senior Timmy Triano capped the scoring late in the third.
In total, Nacinovich finished with two goals, giving him a team-high of 10 goals this year. Burke and Gilleece each had a total of four points, including a goal and three assists. Senior Michael Park stopped 27 of 28 shots in the win.
Underclassmen have gotten more opportunities this season, with injuries to key players such as Doyle and Ronan Curry as well as Isaac Suh, among others. The experience these players are gaining is something Herr thinks will benefit his team in the long run.
“It bodes well for the future here,” Herr said. “The tough part this year is just the struggles that we’ve had, but on the flip side, there’s been a lot of opportunities for younger guys to step into the lineup and get some really good experience. It’s good for the future, and we’ll have a good junior and sophomore group moving up next year, so it’s been a good opportunity for these guys.”
Chatham has been facing an uphill battle in terms of qualifying for the state tournament. A .500 record is an automatic qualifier, but a finish within no worse than four games of .500 means a team can apply to be considered for an at-large bid. Right now, Chatham stands at 5-10-1, with three games remaining on the schedule against Pope John, Randolph and Morristown-Beard. It would need to win two of those three games to qualify for at-large consideration.
But it kept its focus on the task at hand on Monday night, knowing full well that a win would qualify it for one of the postseason tournaments that it hopes to participate in, in the Mennen Cup.
“We stressed the importance of this game,” Herr said. “I think our senior group- obviously a special night with our seniors- they understood the level that we needed to play that. We started quick, and we kept our foot on the gas which was nice to see.”
Now, it will hope it can get healthy in the next few weeks, and try to make a run at the title.
“We take pride in playing in one of the best public divisions in the state,” Herr said. “It’s always nice to qualify, obviously, and anything can happen once you get in there. Hopefully we’ll get healthy here in the next couple of weeks and get some more guys back. But like I said, Chatham’s been in this division for I don’t know how many years, but it’s always a proud moment when you qualify.”
MORE POST-GAME REACTION
“They’ve been great mentors to me. They’ve really showed me the way of high school hockey, and it feels really good to give them something, one last win that means a lot to them and I know will mean so much more to them down the road.”– Chatham freshman Matt Nacinovich on the team’s senior class
First star: Matthew Nacinovich, Chatham, F, Fr.: 2 goals
Second star: Connor Gilleece, Chatham, F, So.: 1 goal, 3 assists
Third star: Ryan Burke, Chatham, D, Jr.: 1 goal, 3 assists
CHA — Matthew Nacinovich (Connor Gilleece) 8:57
CHA — Danny Koehler (Connor Gilleece) 0:38
CHA — Ryan Burke 10:59
MAD — John Rusen (Andrew Haralampoudis, Cormac McNamara) 4:24
CHA — Connor Gilleece (Ethan McRae, Ryan Burke) 2:24
CHA — Matthew Nacinovich (Ryan Burke) 0:55
CHA — Timmy Triano (Connor Gilleece, Ryan Burke) 3:28
Shots on goal: Chatham 30, Madison 28
Saves: Michael Park (Chatham) 27, Bryan Worthington (Madison) 12, Luke Chayut (Madison) 12
Team records: Chatham 5-10-1 (2-4 Mennen), Madison 4-12-1 (1-7 Mennen)