Before the season started, Montgomery Blair High School’s co-op ice hockey team had two factors that were arguably working against it.
The first, and one that was resolved rather quickly, was that it appeared as though Blair would exceed the number of players from one school who were allowed to participate on a co-op team, forcing the Blazers to play as a single-school club. That turned out not to be the case, however, as Kevin McCabe’s team powered forward with the same makeup it’s had in past seasons.
The second, and more intangible factor, was wondering how the team would respond given that the roster didn’t contain a single senior.
Every player, from leading scorer Max Kronstadt (13 goals, 9 assists, 22 points) to freshman goalie Jake Zastrow, had no more than two years of varsity experience heading into the year. So, despite the fact that a significant amount of talent, especially on defense, was on Blair’s side, no one was quite sure how good the team would actually be.
“Truth be told, we’re a hair better than I thought we were going to be,” said McCabe, now in his 15th season. “Somewhere along the line they got the hockey bug — playing in summer leagues, going to camps, making themselves upwardly mobile, striving to basically improve every aspect of their game — and it’s translated into more success for the team.”
Through seven games, the Blazers boast a 5-1-1 record in the MSHL with their only loss coming against the team ahead of them in the standings, the D.C. Stars (6-1-0). Alongside Kronstadt, junior captain Sebastian Rubenstein has contributed a significant chunk of offensive support with 10 goals and 11 assists (21 points). But make no mistake, said McCabe, this is far from a team with one or two standout individuals who make things work.
“This is probably the most balanced team I’ve had,” McCabe said. “I’ve had better hockey players in the past, but they can’t be on the ice at all times. With this group, I can take one line off the ice, replace them with five more guys and we’re not missing a beat.”
In addition to Kronstadt and Rubenstein, Kenny Johnson, Javy Lopez-Casertano, Ty Wilson, Eddie Ilgenfritz and Kristina Rexford all are part of the junior class that has been thrust into a leadership role one year early.
“Our juniors are trying to be there for the freshman like the seniors have been there for us in the past,” Rubenstein said. “It’s different not having any seniors, but it could work to our advantage.”
After every game, Rubenstein is meticulous about having a lengthy team chat to break down what went well and what needs improvement. Whether it’s clearing the puck out of the defensive end or tightening positioning on the power play, the team always has plenty to discuss.
“One of the things our team has learned is that we kind of feel like we haven’t played our best game yet this year,” Rubenstein said. “We’re trying to get better each and every week and hopefully we can keep it up.”
McCabe said while the Blazers are strong defensively, they can also fly through the neutral zone and play fast when they need to. His biggest concern this preseason was goaltending, which has been addressed by the rapidly-improving Zastrow (4.71 GAA).
“He’s not Dominik Hasek yet, but he’s athletic and playing well enough for us to win,” McCabe said.
Johnson, another member of the talented junior class, said he also didn’t expect Blair to be quite this good at the start of the season, but also is aware of the opportunity ahead to create some special memories if all goes well.
“In the big games when it’s close, we’re the people that coach looks for to get us out of those tough situations and to get some goals up on the board,” Johnson said. “I don’t think having no seniors holds us back at all. We’re out there to play as a team and if you go out there and play as a team, the goals will come.”
Added McCabe: “It’s encouraging for me as a coach to see that kind of intensity and that kind of camaraderie because it doesn’t come along very often. If you play poker long enough, you get dealt a good hand. And as a coach, I’ve been dealt a good hand.”