The Verona-Glen Ridge hockey team handed Montclair High School a stunning overtime defeat on Thursday night, setting up VGR’s first appearance ever in the finals of the two-decade-old McInnis Cup.
Montclair was the top seed going into the playoffs for the McInnis, which was created in 1994. The Mounties were 17-2-3 this season, with and 8-0 record in-conference. But VGR, which was ranked fourth, knocked off Nutley, 2-1, in the first round, and Coach Ken Lilien told the joint team that he felt they had it in them to make a dent in the stats for Montclair, which had beaten Verona twice in regular play.
“I told them that I had a good feeling about the game,” Lilien says of their pre-game meeting. “They’ve brought their competitive level way up this season.”
It turned out to be a very prophetic speech. While Remy Parker got Montclair on the scoreboard first in front of the packed Clary Anderson Arena crowd, Owen Gleeson, a senior from the Glen Ridge side of the VGR team put the game at a 1-1 by the end of the first period. Stephen Wenzl, another Glen Ridge senior, pushed the score to 2-1 VGR early in the second and for much of the period, VGR ruled. Then Montclair’s Mike Gerne scored on a Brock Bowers assist with 1:45 to go, and threw the game into overtime.
Lilien again told his team they could do it. “The pressure is on Montclair,” he recalls saying.
And so it was. As the crowd, which included perhaps as many as 200 student VGR supporters, grew louder, so did the play on the ice. Finally Gleeson, with an assist from Verona’s Sean DeCandia, again found the back of the net and gave VGR the 3-2 win.
“My senior leadership is the whole key,” says Lilien of Gleeson, Wenzel and Verona’s Kevin White and Liam Blaney, who had 37 saves in the win. “They play a lot and lead by example and they bring everyone’s play up.”
That leadership will face its ultimate test on Saturday night at South Mountain Arena, when VGR will take on Montclair Kimberley Academy in the McInnis Cup finals. MKA has won the McInnis four times in the last decade, including 2014 and 2015. Lilien is sticking by his good feelings, however: “We’re just hitting our stride,” he says.
The puck drops on the McInnis Cup final at 5:45 p.m. at South Mountain arena.
Photos copyright Rich Blaney. Used by permission.