STAMFORD — OK, perhaps not everyone was hoping for a Ridgefield High School-New Canaan FCIAC boys hockey final on Saturday. But after listening to Greenwich coach Chris Rurak after his team lost a 7-2 decision to New Canaan in last night’s semifinals, it certainly had to be close to everyone.
“It’s everything you could want out of an FCIAC final,” Rurak said of the greatly anticipated matchup.
Well, if a losing semifinal coach is OK with it, we all should be. Ridgefield, a 3-0 victor over Westhill/Stamford in the first semifinal yesterday at Terry Conners Rink, and New Canaan were clearly the two best teams in the conference this season, and two of the best in the state. They will now face off in Saturday’s 2:30 p.m. final at Conners.
“We’re happy to be there, and happy to see Ridgefield again,” New Canaan coach Pat Gore said, echoing the sentiments of virtually all FCIAC boys hockey followers.
Ridgefield coach Shaun Gallagher, who spoke before the New Canaan-Greenwich game, had to choose his words more carefully.
“We’re going to practice and prepare hard for whoever it is we play,” Gallagher said.
For a while yesterday, however, it seemed far from a sure thing that a Ridgefield-New Canaan final would happen. The top-seeded Tigers (19-2), who were 11-0 during the FCIAC regular season and will try to complete a rare perfect conference mark Saturday, led just 1-0 midway through the second period, and No. 4 Westhill/Stamford was about to go on a 5-on-3 power play.
The No. 2 Rams (17-3-1), meanwhile, who were led by Tyler Hill’s two goals, held merely a 2-1 lead over No. 6 Greenwich in the final minute of the second period.
But neither favorite was going to be derailed from a third showdown between the two this season. Ridgefield beat New Canaan, 4-2, on Dec. 30 at home and then won again, 3-1, on Feb. 7 at the Darien Ice Rink.
“It should be a great game, but if we play our game it won’t be any different than the first two times we played,” Ridgefield’s Matteo van Wees said confidently.
Ridgefield 3, Westhill/Stamford 0
The Tigers were beginning to get a bit frustrated by Westhill/Stamford goalie Chris Compolattaro, even though van Wees gave them a 1-0 lead in the sixth minute off a scramble in front of the goal. Not only was Compolattaro (31 saves) playing great, but the Stamford co-op squad (12-8-1) came out strong in the second period, outshooting the Tigers, 5-2, in the first six minutes and looked poised to tie the game.
And then came the 5-on-3 advantage. It was the turning point of the contest. The Vikings couldn’t do anything on the power play and then committed two penalties of their own, giving Ridgefield a two-man advantage for 40 seconds.
“We knew (Westhill/Stamford’s) only chance was on the power play, and not scoring on their 5-on-3 really deflated them,” said van Wees, whose first-period goal was his 16th this season. “We knew if we killed it we’d win.”
The Tigers weren’t about to let the opportunity slip away and Jonas Chang quickly blasted a slapper past Compolattaro from the point for a 2-0 lead.
“It was quite a momentum swing,” Gore said. “It got a little chaotic there for a while with all the penalties, but for us to kill the 5-on-3, and then convert when we had the same chance, well, that was the difference in the game.”
“The refs tightened it up there for a while in the second period and the 5-on-3s hurt us,” added Westhill/Stamford coach John Santagata, whose team won the Division III state championship last season. “We gave the game away with too many mistakes, too many penalties.”
Starting with Ridgefield’s two-man advantage, the Tigers outshot the Vikings, 12-2, the rest of the second period (34-24 overall) and took a 3-0 lead late in the period when Nick Cullinan knocked a rebound past Compolattaro.
Westhill/Stamford played well in the third period but Ridgefield would not be denied. Tigers goalie Sean Keegans stopped 24 shots to pick up the shutout.
New Canaan 7, Greenwich 2
It wasn’t panic time but the Rams had to be just a little concerned. Five minutes into the second period the Rams were outshooting the Cardinals, 21-3, but led just 1-0 thanks to Hill’s 17th goal on a terrific individual effort in the first period.
“We have a lot of seniors but there were a lot of nerves out there tonight,” Gore said. “We haven’t been this far in a while (this is the Rams’ first trip to the final since winning it all in 2014). Our legs looked like they were in quicksand in the first period but we got our legs back after that.”
Hill scored No. 18 with 9:56 remaining in the middle period against Greenwich goalie Alex Presley (29 saves) for a 2-0 lead.
“Hill is a very talented player,” Rurak said. “He is so hard to contain.”
Five minutes later, though, Greenwich’s Owen Johnson cut it back to a one-goal game by beating Rams goalie Peter Windas (nine saves).
“I knew we had them on the ropes but their goalie kept them in it,” Hill said.
However, with 54 seconds left in the period, Anton Adding knocked in a rebound for the Rams to make it 3-1. Even though through two periods the Rams were outshooting the Cards, 24-4 (36-10 overall), the Ridgefield-New Canaan final was still not a sure thing.
“That late goal sucked a lot of life out of us,” Rurak said. “But even down 3-1 in the third period, we played well. Just had some bad luck . . . one bad bounce.”
New Canaan’s Teddy Hood flipped a 70-foot shot from outside the blue line and it somehow eluded Presley with 10:34 left in the third period to make it 4-1. That was the one that really sucked the life out of the Cardinals, and hockey’s version of garbage time was underway.
Ryan Hart and Chase Glover scored for New Canaan to make it 6-1 before Kevin Wright tallied for Greenwich. New Canaan’s Griffin Arnone then wrapped up the scoring with 1:46 remaining. Finally, Ridgefield-New Canaan III was official.
“We can beat Ridgefield,” Gore said. “All I ask for is a good game. But whatever happens, it’s nice for the fans.”