Connecticut D2 Final: Fairfield gets job done in overtime

Michael Fornabaio
Michael Fornabaio
Michael writes for Hockey Night in Boston, covers the Bridgeport Sound Tigers for the Connecticut Post, and once covered the Beast of New Haven. He grew up at the New Haven Coliseum. Story, blog links @BSTSoundinOff blog.ctnews.com/fornabaio.

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Fairfield players celebrate Connecticut's D2 state title after beating North Branford, 4-3, in overtime. (Photo by Connecticut Post/Christian Abraham)
Fairfield players celebrate Connecticut’s D2 state title after beating North Branford, 4-3, in overtime. (Photo by Connecticut Post/Christian Abraham)

As North Branford pressed on, as North Branford came back, as the Thunderbirds tied the game, Fairfield had a few things going for it.

The Mustangs had a lead, though that cushion dwindled and vanished. But they also had Mike Grace in goal, who made 43 saves, and they had Jake Fuss.

Fuss backhanded home a rebound 1:22 into overtime Friday to give Fairfield a 4-3 win over North Branford in the CIAC Division II championship at Ingalls Rink.

“Mr. Fuss said we’re going to win it on the first shift,” said Fairfield coach Tom Roche, who said after the game he was stepping down for a job in Boston. “And he went out there and did it.”

Fuss, who agonized over a choice between junior hockey and the Mustangs before the season (the CIAC lets you play only one or the other in-season), came back for a chance at a state title.

He forced the first of three turnovers on North Branford clearing attempts on that shift, and linemates Jack McCormick and Owen Emmendorfer swarmed as well. Jeremy Ziegler’s point shot got through. North Branford goalie John Lovelace sprawled to stop it and kicked it to his left, where it ticked off Fuss’ stick.

Fuss dove in to backhand it home and stood up, mission accomplished, into a celebration.

“The first shift is always the hardest shift in overtime,” Fuss said. “You’ve got to get the butterflies out. You’ve just got to test the kid (Lovelace). We were lucky enough to get the bounce and win.”

North Branford, the top seed by just a couple of power points over the Mustangs, controlled most of regulation. The Thunderbirds, in their second Division II final in a row, outshot Fairfield 46-17. Grace, a senior, was phenomenal.

“Grace is the No. 1 goalie in the state, regardless of division,” Roche said. “He’s won more games for us than anybody. More importantly, he’s a great kid. He’s always happy. He’s always smiling.”

He was especially strong in the first period, when North Branford put 19 shots on him. One of the first got past him; Dom Raccio’s hard wraparound on a two-on-one appeared to carom in off Grace’s goal stick as he dove back across to his right.

Mid-Atlantic-Festival-Ad-300x250But he held the fort on everything from in front of him. The Mustangs scored off turnovers and took a 3-1 lead after one.

“They capitalized on a couple of their opportunities, and we missed capitalizing on a couple of ours,” North Branford coach Ralph Shaw said. “I kept saying in between periods, we’re a dangerous team. Relax, keep pushing and good things will happen.”

It did in the third. A Fairfield rush broke down, and Mike Pantera carried the other way, cut left to right inside the blue line and used a defenseman as a screen to beat Grace with 6:06 left.

Marc Daddio then set up an open Adam Burkle at the left side of the net for the tying goal with 3:26 to play.

“I’m proud of the way we played. We got down early in the game, but we fought back,” Shaw said. “We kept rising to the occasion. We got back down to the game plan, pressure at the net, pucks to the net.”

But Fairfield still had Grace and Fuss.

“They make everybody else better,” Roche said. “Jake sees the ice better than anyone I’ve ever coached. He makes everybody else better. The kids get pumped up, the way he plays.”

Fuss said he’d called a 4-3 win before the game. He got to the net to make it happen, giving the program its second state title in four years; Kevin Robinson scored on an overtime penalty shot to win the 2013 title.

“They came out and took all the momentum away from us in the third,” Fuss said. “We came out there and took it right back, and now we’re champions

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