DARIEN – It almost seemed unfair.
The Darien High School boys hockey team, the defending Division 1 state champion, was riding a nine-game winning streak before losing to powerful Don Bosco of New Jersey six days earlier. The Blue Wave had won 14 of 16 games this season heading into Wednesday’s game against Greenwich. They had soundly beaten Greenwich four weeks ago, their third consecutive win over the Cardinals in the last 13 months, and were set to clinch their fifth straight Fairfield County Interscholastic Athletic Conference regular-season championship.
Greenwich, meanwhile, entered the showdown at the Darien Ice Rink stuck in one of its worst slumps in years. The Cardinals came in having split their previous six games and had failed to score more than two goals in four of them.
So what happens?
A couple of rebounds bounce a certain way and Greenwich escapes with a 2-1 victory. All of a sudden it’s Greenwich in the driver’s seat to win the regular-season crown.
“You’re only as good as your last game,” Greenwich coach Bob Russel said. “The last time we played Darien we were soft and we haven’t been playing well lately. Today we played really well.”
Cal McKinney and Mike Mozien scored for Greenwich (14-4, 8-1), which now needs to win just one of its final two league games to clinch the regular-season title and earn the No. 1 seed in the FCIAC Tournament. Darien is also 8-1 in the league (14-3 overall), but the Blue Wave’s earlier win over Greenwich was a non-league affair, so Wednesday’s victory gives Greenwich the tiebreaker.
“Getting one of the top two seeds is important because you get a first-round bye,” Russel said. “So we needed to win one of our last three to get 1 or 2. So, why wait? Let’s get it now. Getting the 1 or the 2 isn’t really a big difference, but with the 1, you get bragging rights.”
And that’s why the Cardinals celebrated afterward to the extent they did and why the Blue Wave appeared so despondent.
“We really wanted to finish first so that’s a bummer,” said Darien captain Jake Kirby, who filled in for coach Mac Budd as Darien’s postgame spokesman. Budd left the rink right after speaking to his team. “We’re not accustomed to losing, so this is tough. But it’s better to lose now than in two weeks.”
The FCIAC playoffs begin Feb. 27, with the final set for March 5 at Stamford’s Terry Connors Rink. Darien beat Greenwich in last year’s FCIAC final, as well as in the state D1 championship game. It will not exactly be a shocker if the same matchups occur again next month.
McKinney batted a rebound past Darien goalie David Voight (16 saves) with 7:10 remaining in the second period to give Greenwich the lead. That goal ended a nine-period scoring drought against Darien that dates back to last year’s FCIAC final.
“Giving up that first goal was tough,” Kirby said. “We dominated the second period (12-5 Darien advantage in shots on goal). But we have to know that that’s not going to happen every game.”
Mozien then grabbed another rebound that Voight was unable to cover with 10:40 remaining in the third period to make it 2-0. That goal was key because the Blue Wave, who outshot the Cardinals, 33-18, were going to be hard to shut out. Sure enough, Greenwich goalie Nick Bozzuto did allow a goal by Max Deberadinis with 6:39 left to make it interesting, but that was it. Bozzuto was outstanding in goal for the Cardinals, stopping 32 of 33 shots.
“We’ve been struggling for a while so it was great to get the early lead,” Bozzuto said. “I was pleased with the way our defense played. We knew they shoot, shoot, shoot. But this was great for our confidence. To beat one of the best teams in the state, well, our confidence just skyrocketed.”
Which should just make Round 3, if we are all lucky enough to get it, that much more interesting.
NOTES: Before getting a forfeit victory over Trinity Catholic in its previous game, Darien saw its nine-game winning streak end in a 5-2 loss to Don Bosco of New Jersey on Feb. 11. Darien’s only other loss came against Notre Dame of West Haven, 3-1, on Jan. 4. … Darien, now 9-3 against Division 1 teams, has outscored its 16 opponents (aside from the forfeit win) by a 69-25 margin. Greenwich, 7-4 vs. D1 opponents, has outscored its 18 opponents, 73-25. … The Cardinals lost to Hamden, St. Joseph and Notre Dame-West Haven while going just 3-3 in its previous six games. … The Blue Wave began play Wednesday ranked third in the D1 rankings, behind Xavier and NDWH. Greenwich was fifth behind No. 4 Northwest Catholic. … Darien beat Greenwich, 5-3, in last year’s FCIAC final, and 1-0 in the state Division 1 championship game. … The last FCIAC title for Greenwich was 2008. The Cardinals last won the state crown in 1992.