By Emery Filmer
Unless St. Joseph High School or Fairfield pulls off a major upset in Saturday’s opening round, fans of Fairfield County Interscholastic Athletic Conference boys ice hockey will be in for a special treat when the tournament semifinals unfold next Wednesday at Terry Conners Rink in Stamford.
Ridgefield first must get past St. Joseph in the opener Saturday at 2:20 p.m. at Conners, and defending champion New Canaan will have to do the same against the Fairfield Warde/Ludlowe co-op team in the nightcap at 4:20. If both favorites advance, the league would showcase four of the state’s top 10 teams in the semifinals.
“If we and Ridgefield can take of business Saturday,” New Canaan coach Pat Gore said, “well, it would set up a couple of great matchups in the semifinals. I can’t remember a better FCIAC semifinal doubleheader than that.”
Greenwich (17-1-2, 10-0-2 FCIAC), the state’s top ranked team according to the New Haven Register Division 1 poll, is the top seed, and the Cardinals along with No. 2 seed Darien (18-2-1, 10-1-1) earned first-round byes. Third-place New Canaan (11-6-3, 9-1-2) beat Fairfield (14-6, 7-5) 6-2 on Jan. 5, while No. 4 Ridgefield (14-5, 10-2) cruised past St. Joseph (9-8-1, 8-4) 5-2 on Jan. 31.
If the favorites on Saturday advance, Wednesday’s semifinals would pit Greenwich against Ridgefield after Darien and New Canaan renew their intense rivalry. As if these long-time adversaries needed any extra juice, New Canaan upset Darien in last year’s FCIAC final.
“We want New Canaan to win,” Darien coach Chris Gerwig said of Saturday’s first-round contest. “That would make for a great semifinal. Last year left a bitter taste in our mouths and the kids are hungry. Plus, we want people to get their money’s worth and there is no better rivalry. It would be a lot of fun for everybody.”
New Canaan, Darien, Greenwich and Ridgefield have won 40 of the 48 FCIAC championships over the years, with New Canaan leading the way with 18 and three of the last five under head coach Bo Hickey, who retired last year. Greenwich has won 10, with the most recent coming in 2010. Darien, which last won in 2008, has seven titles, and Ridgefield has five, including back-to-back championships in 2012-13.
In addition, one of the big four has won every conference championship played since Trinity Catholic won the crown in 1995. That would help explain the huge underdog status for St. Joseph, which was the runner-up three times in the last five years, and Fairfield, which has never reached the FCIAC final.
“There is very little difference between the top four teams,” Greenwich coach Bob Russel said. “We’re all evenly matched so it’s going to be a great tournament. But it is going to be so stressful. After the FCIACs end, we’re all going to need a week off before states to get our heads straight.”
A final four involving four of the top 10 teams in the state would indeed be an event. But first things first. St. Joseph and Fairfield would love to throw a wrench into that scenario.
St. Joseph lost its last three games prior to Thursday night’s non-league contest against Branford, but those losses were to Darien, New Canaan and Greenwich. Before that the Cadets had won eight of nine. Fairfield, meanwhile, played Greenwich tough in a 2-1 loss earlier this season, and finished winning nine of 11 games.
But St. Joseph and Fairfield were a combined 0-for-8 in league play against the top four. Greenwich not only swept those two playoff teams but went undefeated through league play, while tying Darien and New Canaan. The Cardinals’ only loss was a 2-0 non-league setback against Xavier.
“Throw out the regular-season results; any one of the four teams can win it all,” Russel said. “This now will be playoff hockey, though, with everyone a little tighter, a little more nervous. But I like our experience and we have pretty good balance, not depending on any one line.”
The Cardinals, who are led by leading scorer Matt Lodato and veteran goaltender Bryan Archino, have 12 seniors and seven of those have been playing regularly since they were freshmen.
Darien, meanwhile, is another experienced group. The Blue Wave have 12 players back from last year who experienced the loss to New Canaan in the FCIAC final, not to mention the heartbreaking overtime loss to Fairfield Prep in the Division 1 final. Darien was that close to winning its first state title since 1969.
“The loss was good for us,” Gerwig said, but he wasn’t referring to either of those defeats last year. He meant the 4-1 decision at Ridgefield on Jan. 12, a rare regular-season setback for the Blue Wave, who also tied Greenwich in their FCIAC meeting. “We’re always winning, winning, winning in the regular season and then we get to the final and we don’t play to the best of our ability. Hopefully that changes this time.”
The Blue Wave will lean heavily on goalie Will Massie and their first line of Jack Pardue, Jake Kirby and Craig Miller, which combined for more than 100 points this season.
New Canaan lost six games overall but the Rams always play one of the most difficult schedules in the state. They will be shooting for their fourth FCIAC crown in six years in Gore’s rookie season.
“We only lost five or six players from last year and our record says we had a successful season but I felt we could’ve done better,” said Gore, who replaced Hickey last summer. “You always want to play your rival, go through your rival on the way to a championship, and last year’s (final against Darien) will be, for our kids, one of the best memories of their lives. If we meet again, Darien will certainly have revenge on its mind, but Fairfield is a pesky little team and they can surprise you.”
Gore will go with sophomore goalie Liam Mooney on Saturday against Fairfield. The Rams have three dangerous lines, led by top scorers Pat Hompe (23 points), sophomore Tyler Hill (22) and Kyle Mettler (21).
Ridgefield lost to Greenwich and New Canaan and probably has the toughest route to a championship. St. Joseph has won several postseason games in recent years and figures to be a tough out. And then would come Greenwich … and then most likely either Darien or New Canaan.
But the Tigers will remember their victory over Darien earlier, and have plenty of talented forwards led by Liam Smith, Alec Knupp and Ryan Hallahan in front of veteran goalie Alec Schneider.