Nutley Raiders need to find niche before playoffs

Nutley goalie Joe Hoarle makes a save against Verona-Glen Ridge. Hoarle has made over 270 saves so far this season for the Raiders, including a scoreless streak of 115 minutes.

The Nutley varsity ice hockey team has seen some ups and downs this season. Despite owning a 7-2-1 Essex Conference record, the team has struggled with consistency at times, especially in out-of-division games. With an overall record of 9-6-2, head coach Eric Puzio is hoping the team finds its identity before the postseason begins.

“We’re still in search of our niche,” said coach Puzio. “My thought was that we are a little bigger an stronger than most opponents this year, so I thought our speed and physicality will help us. This is one of the bigger and stronger teams that we’ve had. But it’s a give-and-take type situation with hockey – meaning more penalties.

“Taking a penalty or two shouldn’t change things much, but mentally we get caught up in trying not to commit penalties and our play is effected.”

This can sometimes mean inconsistency from one period to the next. In Nutley’s most recent loss, they held a 1-0 lead for two periods before giving up three goals in the third against Verona-Glen Ridge.

“We’ve been guilty of taking shifts off and not playing as hard a we could,” said Puzio. “I’m looking for full 45 minute games, but sometimes we come out and have two solid periods, then have a bad third.”

Still, the Raiders are right in the mix to earn a bye in the Essex Conference playoffs. With a 7-2-1 conference record, Nutley has 15 points. Montclair Kimberely Academy leads with 20 points and Verona-Glen Ridge and Livingston both have 16. The top two teams in the conference earn a first round bye in the playoffs.

Nutley’s next game may decide the seeding when they play Livingston on Saturday, Feb. 8 at 3:45 p.m. at Codey Arena in West Orange. They also play West Orange on Monday, Feb. 10 at 4:15 p.m. (at Codey Arena) and MKA on Thursday, Feb. 13 at 6:45 p.m. at Clary Anderson Arena.

Coach Puzio believes that the Raiders can be as good as anyone if the team finds it’s identity.

“If there is anything that I want to instill in our team it is that there is a lot of hockey left,” said Puzio. “If we come to play on a regular basis and play more like a team that is three lines deep and six defensemen deep, I’m telling you good things can happen for us. It just a mater of us finding our niche, not playing the blame game and doing our job. Every shift is important and you don’t want to be guilty of not giving your all.”