CHATHAM, NJ - Sam Ortolani often hears his ice hockey coaches and, especially his father, shouting to him with advice to carry the puck down the wing and not the center.
"I know my dad is right because it's a lot harder to keep possession when you skate down the middle," the Chatham senior center said. "I like to go up the middle because you have a better angle to shoot."
Ortolani didn't have to think of any strategy last Saturday in the third period when Chatham teammate Evan Schmidt sent him a lead pass out of the defensive zone during a penalty kill. Ortolani used his best asset - his skating speed - and took off on a breakaway down the middle, finishing with a shot over the goalie's shoulder to tie the game with Kinnelon in the season opener.
The short-handed goal by Ortolani sparked the Cougars to a 2-1 victory.
Sam Ortolani is the Hawk Allstate Chatham Athlete of the Week.
"The short-handed goal lifted the team and got us going," Brendon Herr, in his second season as the Chatham coach, said. "We were more frustrated than down because before that we had the opportunities and just couldn't finish. That goal kick-started everything."
A year ago, Chatham lost to Kinnelon in Herr's debut, and the Cougars stumbled to a 1-5 start. Winning the opener was a big confidence-booster.
"It was a mood changer. After I scored everyone's face lit up and the negative comments kind of went away and we started working together," Ortolani said. "We had puck possession almost the entire time in the third period. Thomas (Winter) got the puck in the corner and gave it a nice whack and it went off the goalie's pads and in for the winning goal."
Ever since he started skating at the age of five or six, Ortolani's goal was to skate fast. That was his identity on the ice.
"When I was younger, I focused on being fast," he said. "I took skating lessons at Mennen with my aunt, Kathy Ortolani, who is a skating pro there. I went there three times a week with my aunt and we just worked on the fundamentals pretty much. Crossovers and hard laps around the rink. That became the biggest element of my game, my speed."
Now he's concentratig on converting that speed into goals by raising other parts of his game. His personal goal is score 11 goals, which would match the number he wears on his jersey.
"I'm trying to utilize my speed and up my ice hockey IQ," Ortolani said. "Stick handling and control of the puck are very important. Turnovers hurt us a lot. If we can have good puck control, we'll be that much better."
Ortolani is definitely a player to watch for Chatham, which meets Randolph on Thursday at Mennen. Even if he isn't doing the scoring, he can make an impact on the game.
"One of his best qualities is his speed," Herr said. "It not only opens up opportunities for himself, but it opens things up for his line mates as well. If he's not the fastest, he's definitely one of the fastest guys in the entire Mennen league. He's definitely a game-changer. That's why we use him on our penalty kill. You saw it on Saturday. We stole the puck in our zone and he beat the defenseman down the ice.
"He's a smart player. Team-wise we're a smarter and faster team than we were. His work ethic is one of the best I've been around in my life. He gives an extra effort in everything. As a senior, his leadership skills have people looking up to him in the room."
Ortolani felt he had to raise his game a bit to make up for the absence of captain Jeff Haley, who is working his way back from an injury.
"(Ortolani) is one of the faster players on our team and he accelerates very quickly," Jamie Boles, Chatham goalie, said. "He'll break out slowly and the other team will slack off a little and he'll just rocket past them into the offensive zone. He's a lot of fun to watch. He can definitely be one of the most effective players if he puts his skills to use. If his line sets him up well, he can be very good."
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