When an undefeated hockey team is facing another that won just half of its games, and a championship is on the line, it might be easy to think that the undefeated team might take the other lightly. There is absolutely zero chance of that happening in tomorrow’s FCIAC boys hockey final at Dorothy Hamill Rink in Greenwich.
“You can’t take anyone lightly at this point of the season,” said Ridgefield coach Shaun Gallagher, whose top-seeded Tigers, ranked No. 1 in the state in the GameTimeCT poll, will be gunning for their third consecutive title against Greenwich. “We’re not thinking about being undefeated or that Greenwich is the sixth seed (in a six-team tournament) with the record they have. We’ve got to stay focused because we know anything can happen.”
That’s good coachspeak but there are other, more tangible reasons why Ridgefield (21-0) better be careful on Saturday.
One, it is a home game for Greenwich. The site for the final was determined before the season began.
Two, the Cardinals (11-9-2) reached the final by winning road games against New Canaan and Darien and are playing as well as they have all season.
“We believe we earned it by beating New Canaan and Darien,” Greenwich coach Chris Rurak said, referring to the home ice advantage the Cardinals will enjoy Saturday.
“That’s out of our control,” Gallagher added about playing the final on the road despite finishing first. “Once they drop the puck it’ll be a rink, with ice, and with refs, like always.”
And reason No. 4? Beware the hot goalie.
Greenwich freshman Charlie Zolin has had a great month and stopped 47 of 48 shots on goal in Wednesday’s 2-1 win over Darien, when Charlie Graves scored the game-winner 5:19 into the second overtime.
“(Zolin) has been a pleasant surprise,” Rurak said. “He got his chance late in the season and we kept playing him. There has been no reason to take him out.”
Zolin has been a microcosm of the season for Greenwich.
“We had a weird regular season,” Rurak said. “When the season started I felt all the pieces were there: the defensive corps was intact and we had a lot of returning scoring power. So our record doesn’t make sense.”
Greenwich started 2-4-2 and that was followed by win, loss, win, loss, win, loss, win, loss. Then came five victories in the Cards’ last six games, including an impressive win over LaSalle Academy (R.I.) at Providence College before the FCIAC playoff wins.
“We’ve been soaring since the game at Providence,” Rurak said. “That was a turning point and gave us a lot of confidence.”
Zolin’s performance has given the Cards an added boost in the confidence department.
“Zolin is playing much better than a freshman should be playing now,” Gallagher said. “But he’s not the first quality goalie we’ve seen. In an FCIAC final, you’re going to see a quality goalie.”
The Tigers have a pretty good goalie of their own in Sean Gordon. The Tigers have allowed just 28 goals (1.33 goals against average), although Gordon was called on to make just 10 saves in Ridgefield’s 8-1 semifinal win over Westhill/Stamford on Wednesday.
But what scares Ridgefield opponents the most is that potent first line. The Tigers send out three solid lines but their top group, consisting of Nick Cullinan, Matt Walker and Will Forest, has been nearly unstoppable. Led by Cullinan’s 37 goals, the trio has scored 74 goals this season in 21 games. Walker had three goals and one assist against Westhill/Stamford while Cullinan added two goals and three assists and Forrest had one goal and two assists. That’s 12 points in one playoff game from one line.
“Their first line is potent,” Rurak said. “We will have to figure out a way to match up against them.”
“We know that any opponent’s gameplan will be to try to keep our first line down, we’re aware of that,” Gallagher added. “Our kids will just need to focus on execution, which leads to success on the scoreboard.”
Ridgefield beat Greenwich, 5-2, at Ridgefield on Jan. 25, but Rurak feels that was yet another reason the Tigers should not feel overconfident Saturday.
“We played them tight the first time,” Rurak said. “On one goal our defenseman was trying to clear the puck and knocked it into our goal, and another goal, well, our goalie (Ben Nash) would love to have that back. So it was more like a 3-2 game.”
So, the 11-9-2 team is not expecting the undefeated, No. 1 team in the state to take them lightly tomorrow.
Wish the Cardinals luck.
“We don’t care about any of that,” Gallagher said, referring to his team’s seemingly overwhelming status as favorite. “We show up and play hard against whatever team is in front of us.”
NOTES: Greenwich has won 11 FCIAC championships, with the last one coming in 2016. Ridgefield, which beat Greenwich in last year’s final, has won five of the last eight and six of the last 12 conference crowns.