There wasn’t anything all that magical or unusual about Ridgefield’s game plan in the Connecticut Division I championship against Northwest Catholic.
“Coach put a lot of time into watching that team,” Ridgefield sophomore forward Nicky Cullinan said. “He got us prepared. In practice … we made a point of crashing the net hard.”
The Tigers did it constantly March 20 at Ingalls Rink, scored big goals — including Cullinan’s, the first of the game — that way, and beat the Lions 6-2 to win their first championship in Division I.
Ridgefield scored three goals in 24 seconds in the first. The Lions cut it to 3-2 after two, but Will Forrest’s goal 53 seconds into the third gave Ridgefield breathing room. Jack Stafford made it 5-2 on a play where Lions goalie Cal Skwara — who wasn’t afraid to swipe back when the Tigers got too close — thought he was interfered with in the midst of a scramble of Jonas Chang’s shot from the blue line.
The Tigers’ veteran defense blocked shots — nine in the first, 12 for the game, and coach Shaun Gallagher figured junior Ty Fujitani for five or six by himself — and Sean Keegans made 30 saves.
“Blocking shots is a very strong part of our defense,” senior defenseman Andrew Tregurtha said. “We just know the more we block, the better it is for Keegans. We can leave him his big moments rather than the (shots) we can block.”
Both teams were playing for their first Division I championship. Ridgefield waited a little longer for its chance after winning the 2002 Division II title. Northwest Catholic was the 2012 Division III runner-up, moved up to Division II the next year and to Division I a year after that. Six players were on the roster for both Northwest Catholic’s Division I playoff debut and this year’s final, freshmen in a 6-2 loss to New Canaan in 2014, seniors this time.
The move was a little sooner than Melanson had expected, with a younger roster than he’d hoped to have for the transition. The Lions were around .500 for the first two seasons but were 37-11-1 the past two.
“If we’re going to go, I said, make sure you keep us there a few years,” Melanson said. “I wanted to make sure to build a program at that level. By all accounts, we did a pretty good job.”
But in a year when any result seemed possible, when teams’ fortunes seemed to ebb and flow halfway at random, Ridgefield was the most consistent team all year. A double-overtime loss to Greenwich in the first round of last year’s state tournament was a motivator, Gallagher said. (In fact, he thought that if they’d had a little more time before that game, they had a big run in them last year, too.) They lost in overtime early in the first week of the season to Xavier, then won 16 in a row before a loss to Fairfield Prep, which they avenged in overtime in the quarterfinals.
“We knew if we could get past Prep, we could go all the way,” said Ridgefield senior forward Matteo van Wees, who scored two goals. “In our minds, they were the best team in the state besides us. It was a huge hump to get over.”
The Tigers won the FCIAC tournament on the way to the state title. They also became the third FCIAC team in a row to win Division I, an impressive run for a conference that hadn’t had a team win Division I since 1998 and hadn’t had a public school do it since Greenwich in 1992 before Darien won the past two seasons. Public schools hadn’t won three straight Division I titles since 1988-90 (West Haven/Hamden/West Haven, the original state powers).
Had Anthony Ceolin’s deflection gotten through Keegans on Northwest Catholic’s first-period power play, perhaps the state’s Catholic schools would’ve gotten back on the board. Instead, Cullinan waited at the right post for a pass from Will Forrest at 10:59. Just 15 seconds later, Jeff Pracella’s shot caromed off a defenseman up into van Wees, who shoveled it home after it fell to the ice. And off the draw, van Wees set up Pracella for a backhander in front blocker-side on Skwara.
After the Lions killed back-to-back Ridgefield five-on-threes in the second, Ceolin and Paul Arel scored to cut the lead to one going to the second intermission.
“We’ve got a core group of seniors, 11 or 12,” Stafford said, “and we all came together as a group and said this is our last period as high school hockey players and seniors.”
Stafford carried the puck up-ice in the first minute of the period. The Lions knocked it away, but Forrest found it, lost it, got it back again in the right circle and fired upstairs for a 4-2 lead. “We bounced back in the second,” Melanson said. “Climbing that mountain, it was just a little too high.”