BRIDGEPORT — Advancing to the championship game of the FCIAC Division I Boys Ice Hockey tournament required Greenwich to defeat second-seeded Fairfield Co-Op for the third time in less than one week, a difficult task to say the least.
It’s tough to beat a team three times in one season, let alone six days, but the Cardinals achieved the challenging feat and worked overtime to do so.
Junior Liam Mathews’ goal 44 seconds into the eight-minute overtime period lifted third-seeded Greenwich to a dramatic 3-2 victory over Fairfield in the semifinals at Wonderland of Ice.
The surging Cardinals, who are riding a five-game winning streak, will play fourth-seeded New Canaan in Saturday’s 4:45 p.m. final at Dorothy Hamill Skating Rink — Greenwich’s home ice.
“That’s going to be a big game, the finals are going to be awesome,” said Mathews, one of the Cardinals’ leading goal scorers this season. “We are going to bring our all and try to bring it home.”
On the game-winning goal, Greenwich senior forward Thatcher Danielson passed the puck up the ice to Mathews, who found himself open on the left wing and finished the play with a shot he won’t forget.
“They had it in our zone, but Thatcher Danielson got the puck, gave me a nice pass all the way down the ice I took it wide and I threw it at the goalie and it somehow went in,” Mathews said. “That goal was a team effort. The breakout in hockey is everything and that’s what resulted in the goal.”
The combined Fairfield Ludlowe-Warde team, which established itself as one of the teams to beat in the FCIAC this season, finished with a record of 8-4-1. Coached by Carl Larouche, Fairfield was also defeated by the Cardinals last Friday and Saturday.
“We were very happy with how we played the entire game,” Larouche said. “Greenwich played very good defensively and we knew they would play well in their zone.”
The Cardinals seemed primed to win the matchup in regulation, but Fairfield tied the game with just 2:27 remaining in the third period. On a power play following a Greenwich roughing penalty, Fairfield capitalized with senior forward Rhys Davies converting a shot off assists from sophomore Noah Kingsley and Brendan Carney.
“We had the momentum, we tied the game with only two minutes left,” Larouche said. “We thought we would win in overtime, but things went differently.”
Greenwich, which last won the FCIAC title in 2016, took a 2-1 edge when junior forward Wesley Zolin tallied with 5:11 left in the third period. Controlling the puck along the boards while avoiding a Fairfield defenseman, Zolin made a quick move, then went top shelf with his snap shot from the right face-off circle, giving the Cards a one-goal lead. Mathews and senior defenseman Ben Bates were credited with assists on Zolin’s impressive tally.
“We knew what we had to do to get the win tonight, we had to set the pace and play with a sense of urgency, because that’s what it takes to win,” said Zolin, who has helped spark the Cardinals offensively throughout the season. “It’s all about effort and hard work and we showed it tonight.”
Both goalies were stellar throughout the semifinal showdown. Greenwich junior Charlie Zolin made 31 saves and Fairfield senior John Grace turned away 23 shots.
“We knew that Zolin is a good goalie and our plan was to put the puck on net, screen the goalie and to go for rebounds and that’s exactly what we did,” Larouche said. “I was very happy with our team’s play.”
Jack Hutchins, a senior forward, put the Cards on top, 1-0, with an unassisted goal off a breakout at the 11:04 mark of the first period. Fairfield had numerous chances to score the equalizer, but was denied by Zolin in goal. In the second period, Fairfield knotted the score at 1-1 courtesy of a power play goal. Davies tallied on a deflection off a shot from sophomore Charlie Swanson with 8:39 left in the second period.
“Beating that team three times in one week is difficult, they’re a great team,” Greenwich coach Jack Duffy said. “We had a tough second period, then had a really good third period. We knew we had a long road ahead of us. To come out in overtime and score a goal early was the end of a great game.”
Fairfield was playing for its first-ever appearance in the tournament final.
“Coming into the year, we knew how strong we were going to be,” Fairfield junior Finn Hoey said. “We came in tonight and worked hard the whole game. The outcome was unfortunate for us, but I loved every part of this season. Greenwich is a very good team and I couldn’t have asked for more effort from our team.”
Now, Greenwich will look to beat New Canaan for the third time this season when the teams meet for the conference title on Saturday.
“Making it to the finals is great, it’s been such a hard year and we’ve dealt with so much adversity,” Wesley Zolin said. “We’ve become such a close group and I’m so happy to be moving to the finals with these guys.”