DARIEN — The Darien boys hockey team entered the state playoffs in the most precarious of situations: in danger of being considered an afterthought.
Ranked No. 1 in the state for much of the season, the Blue Wave did not even advance to the final game and a chance to defend the title in their own conference tournament after being upset in the semifinals by St. Joseph.
Anything less than a return to the final of the CIAC Division I Tournament, and the reigning champion may have had to deal with that most unwanted of qualifiers, “The best team never to….”
“There was definitely a sense of desperation,” said Blue Wave co-captain Jake Kirby. “The few games we lost this year, there wasn’t a sense of desperation. We definitely have a sense of desperation knowing there’s no tomorrow.”
There is indeed a tomorrow for Darien. There is a third straight trip to the state final and the chance for a second consecutive title following Wednesday’s efficient 4-0 semifinal win over Notre Dame-West Haven at Ingalls Rink.
“We stuck to the game plan we’ve used all year,” said Mac Budd, the Blue Wave’s first-year coach. “We like to be aggressive. Don’t change things up.”
David Voigt was outstanding in goal, with 31 saves for the shutout, but it was the several he made at the end of the first period that sent third-seeded Darien (21-3) into Saturday’s final against Fairfield Prep.
The Blue Wave had taken a 1-0 lead at 7:58 when Ed Glassmeyer deflected in the rebound of a shot from the point by Harry Congdon.
The second-seeded Green Knights, who already owned a 3-1 win over Darien on Jan. 4, dominated the final minutes of the period, including two flurries in front of the net where the puck caromed in every direction except past Voigt.
“We did not come out with our strongest game and those late saves were key, and we came into the locker room and regrouped,” Voigt said.
Regrouped was the word consistently used by Budd and his players to describe how the time between periods was used.
“I think the first five minutes we came out pretty strong but the last 10 minutes for some reason we let our foot off the gas and were lucky to get a 1-0 lead,” Kirby said. “David had some pretty good saves. I don’t know how that puck didn’t end up in the back of the net but he kept it out.”
Darien responded with three goals in the first eight minutes of the second period to turn a closely contested game into a waterslide back to the final. Kirby assisted on all three goals, in order by Owen Collins, Scott Voigt and Herbie Hazelton.
“The big moment of the game was at the end of the first period,” Budd said. “Every game you look and say what’s the turning point. It was sort of a sleepy start to the game. The teams were feeling each other out, a lot of icings. The last few minutes of that period they had some real good looks, and in my mind that’s a huge point in the game, to come out of that with a one-goal lead. We regrouped. We’ve been a pretty good team in the second period. We’ve had a tendency to score in batches and we did.”
Budd said his team’s play in the second period was a microcosm of their season.
“You have to raise your intensity level and play like defending state champions and that’s what we did,” Budd said.
Kirby, the playmaker during the Blue Wave’s clinching stretch, said the difference came down to better execution.
“We were able to calm down, settle the puck and get zone offensive zone time and eventually we were able to get some pucks in the net,” Kirby said.
The Blue Wave played conservatively in the final period but were unyielding, not taking any ill-advised chances with their lead.
“I don’t think it was our best period of hockey but it didn’t need to be our best period of hockey at that point,” Budd said.
Now the Blue Wave are back to play on the final afternoon of the season. To get to that point, they defeated their biggest rival (New Canaan), the team that ruined their conference season (St. Joseph) and now Notre Dame-West Haven.
There was the will to succeed and, just maybe, after the FCIAC Tournament, a little fear of failure for extra motivation.
“At the end of the day we said if we go out and win four more games people aren’t going to remember what happened in FCIACs,” Kirby said. “Now we have the chance to repeat in states. We are in a good situation right now.”