GREENWICH — After a dream season that concluded with league and state championships, the conventional wisdom outside of Ridgefield was that substantial graduation losses would keep the team high in the standings, but might preclude another conference title run.
That sentiment was not shared in the Tigers’ locker room.
“Our whole mindset was prove everyone wrong,” said Ridgefield forward Matt Walker. “We are the best team in the FCIAC.”
Capping a not improbable run, the Tigers defended their championship tonight with a 6-4 win over top-seeded Greenwich. In the process they avenged a loss on the final night that cost them a regular-season title. And the win came on the Cardinals’ home ice, Hamill Rink, after the game was moved five hours before the start because of a power outage at the Darien Ice House.
The latter venue, incidentally, was the site of the Tigers’ semifinal win over the host Blue Wave.
“It’s just a good group,” Ridgefield coach Shaun Gallagher said. “It’s a special group that loves hockey, enjoys hockey. They love being around each other and it’s not a chore coming to the rink, and that makes a big difference too.”
Walker scored two goals and was named the most valuable player. Will Forrest scored both of his goals for the Tigers (18-4) in the third period, the first giving them a 5-3 lead and the second, on a power play, securing the outcome at 13:41.
And Nick Cullinan finished with four assists.
“Moving the puck up quickly was essential to our victory,” Walker said. “It gave us the odd-man rushes, which we capitalized on.”
While the early narrative may have focused a bit too much on who was not back for the Tigers, forgotten was that many of the returning players had integral roles last season.
“Our goal is the same every year,” Gallagher said. “A lot of them were here last year and know what it takes. It’s a lot of hard work and it’s a daily process. When you win and lose games during the season you’re learning for nights like this. It was nice to see them come through, believe in themselves and put in a great effort tonight.”
Greenwich (19-3) led just once, after JT Lawrence’s goal just under three minutes in. The advantage was short-lived: Liam Galloway answered less than two minutes later and Del Irving gave the Tigers a 2-1 lead before Matt Davey evened the score for the Cardinals after one period.
Greenwich goaltender Ben Nash stopped a penalty shot and made several point-blank saves, but he was under constant pressure.
Walker scored both his goals in the second period for a 4-3 lead the Tigers would not relinquish.
“My D-linemen just worked really hard, got me the puck,” Walker said.
Gallagher said there were changes made from two weeks ago, when the Cardinals took a 5-3 decision.
“We watched the film, studied Greenwich a little bit and made adjustments,” Gallagher said. “When you come down to these nights, it could have gone either way. A lot of credit to Greenwich. They have a lot of good players and will be very dangerous in the state tournament. For us it just came down to work ethic. We did tweak a bunch of stuff but we are always tweaking a bunch of stuff here and there, to get what is right for that group or that line to emphasize the strengths. A lot of these guys just executed very well tonight.”
Greenwich coach Chris Rurak said the absence of that quality was part of the reason his team came up short in its quest for a second league title in three years.
“It’s just one of those games,” Rurak said. “The kids just didn’t come mentally prepared to execute the gameplan we had drawn up. And uncharacteristically we didn’t play tonight like we have all year. We didn’t get the pucks deep, we didn’t run our forecheck the way I would have liked. We weren’t clearing the puck. We didn’t get the puck out of our zone. If you can’t get it across the blue line you are going to get 3-on-2s, and then you get in trouble.”
Greenwich got goals from four different players. Matt Davey scored and had an assist.
Both teams open the Division I Tournament on Wednesday. A rubber game would have to come in the final.
The Tigers offered a statement tonight for anyone outside the conference who doubts them in the quest to defend another title.
“The mindset was just to try our hardest to get better during practice and prove everyone wrong, and that’s what we did, Walker said.