STAMFORD – Greenwich High School hockey coach Bob Russel was admittedly nervous about Saturday’s conference championship game against St. Joseph, but not for the obvious reason.
The obvious reason was that his team had been hoping to be matched up with defending champion Darien, a team that defeated Greenwich in both the league and state finals one year ago, rather than the No. 6 seed St. Joseph, which had upset Darien in Wednesday’s semifinal.
But such an emotional letdown based on revenge is really just a cliché.
Russel’s edginess in the three days leading up to the final was based completely on reality.
“Yes, of course we were nervous,” Russel said about his coaching staff and his team.
The reason: St. Joseph goalie Ryan Wilson. Wilson did everything but stand on his head against Darien. Another performance like that and Russel’s Cardinals knew they might once again go home without the hardware.
But when Owen Johnson scored with nine seconds remaining in what had been a scoreless first period, St. Joseph was on the ropes. Mike Mozian, the eventual MVP of the game, then added the kill shot 3:49 into the second period and the Cardinals were on their way to a 5-0 victory at Terry Conners Rink and their first Fairfield County Interscholastic Athletic Conference championship since 2009.
“That first goal meant so much,” Russel said. “We were concerned coming into this game because (Wilson) had been so good (against Darien). If the worrying continued, then everyone gets tighter and that can change the whole game.”
St. Joseph (12-10-1) survived a scoreless first period before going on to a 2-1 win over Darien Wednesday behind 43 saves by the sophomore Wilson. And they almost opened again with another scoreless 15 minutes Saturday before Johnson tipped in a centering pass from KC Cunningham.
“A scoreless period would’ve really helped us, it would’ve been great,” Wilson said. “But that first goal brought our energy and our confidence down.”
The Cadets’ energy and confidence then was dealt a devastating blow early in the second period when Mozian flicked a shot toward the goal from the left corner. The puck deflected off the skate of defenseman Andrew Gilbert and slipped past a helpless Wilson.
“Even though we scored, we came out for the second period and acted like it was 0-0,” Mozian said. “Their goalie is just amazing and (the second goal) was a lucky goal but it helped take his confidence down a little.”
“It was a fluke goal but it no one’s fault,” Wilson added. “There’s nothing you can do about it but no doubt it really hurt.”
Fifty two seconds after Mozian’s goal a penalty was called on St. Joseph. And 45 seconds after that Mozian knocked in a rebound on the power play to give the Cards (18-4), the tournament’s No. 1 seed, a 3-0 lead. The way Greenwich goalie Nick Bozzuto was playing, the three goals would be more than enough.
“I thought this was going to be a 1-0 or 2-1 kind of game,” said Bozzuto, who did not allow a goal in the FCIAC playoffs (Greenwich shut out Ridgefield 3-0 in Wednesday’s semifinals). “To put five past Wilson today is huge. After watching the way he played against Darien, we knew it would be tough. But that first goal put a lot of pressure on him.”
Alex Mozian gave the Cardinals a 4-0 lead with 2:38 remaining in the second period on a wrist shot from the slot. Finally, 12 seconds into the final period, Cunningham deftly deflected a slapper from the point by Colin Kelly past Wilson for a 5-0 lead.
A little while later the celebration began, and it’s hard to believe the merriment would have been any more joyous had the opponent been wearing the royal blue and white of Darien.
“Beating Darien for the FCIAC championship would’ve been amazing,” Mike Mozian said. “But we’re still happy. Winning the FCIAC is great. Hopefully we’ll see them again.”
“It would’ve been a great atmosphere if we were playing Darien today,” Bozzuto added.
The two teams played in front of a sold-out Terry Conners Rink last year. Saturday the arena was a little more than half filled.
“But after coming so close last year, we’ll take any win,” Bozzuto said.
St. Joseph was hoping for its first FCIAC championship but settled for its third runner-up finish in the last seven years.
“We’re down right now but it will feel good knowing that we beat the No. 1 team in the state (Darien) to get this far,” said Wilson, who was filling in for head coach J.R. Bria, who had to leave immediately after the game. “We’re looking forward to the state tournament.”
So are the Cardinals, especially Russel.
“I’ve got about 10 more minutes before I start worrying about Ridgefield,” Russel said. “But it’s great for this group to be able to win it. It’s really defining for them. There was a lot of pressure on them today after last year’s loss to Darien but they came through.”
“The feeling in the locker room last year after we lost to Darien was that we’re winning it next year,” Mike Mozian added. “There’s no chance we’re not winning it.”
If Mozian could have conveyed that message to his coach earlier this week it might have saved Russel some agita.
NOTES: Greenwich outshot St. Joseph, 30-17. Bozzuto finished with 17 saves while Wilson stopped 25. … Greenwich also won FCIAC crowns in 2001, 2002 and 2009. St. Joseph was runner-up in 2010 and 2011. … Greenwich, ranked fifth, hosts No. 12 Ridgefield Wednesday at 5:15 at Hamill Rink, while No. 11 St. Joseph is at No. 6 Simsbury Wednesday at 7 p.m. in the first round of the Division 1 Tournament.