NEW HAVEN – For Matteo van Wees, it was the very first game of the year, an overtime win over Fairfield Prep.
For Jack Stafford, it was capturing the FCIAC title that led the senior forward to believe that Ridgefield could win a first-ever CIAC Division I championship.
That belief became a stunning reality for the second-seeded Tigers Monday night following a convincing 6-2 victory over top-seeded Northwest Catholic at Yale University’s Ingalls Rink.
And when it was over and the championship photos were taken, describing the emotion of capturing a first state title was harder than actually accomplishing the goal.
“It means everything not just for the team, but for the program and the town,” van Wees said. “We’re doing it for everyone in the community. It’s awesome. I don’t know what to say.”
Ridgefield Prep (24-2), ranked No. 6 in the Tri-State by News 12 Varsity, broke a tense, scoreless tie with a three-goal outburst in 24 seconds late in the first period to go into the first intermission with a commanding lead.
It started with a goal in front by Nick Cullinan, followed by a stuff-in by van Wees and a backhand by Jeff Pracella.
“I knew we’d get good chances and good looks because we have great speed up front and our ‘D’ moved the puck up to them very well today,” Ridgefield coach Shaun Gallagher said. “It didn’t surprise me we scored six, but it did surprise me scoring three quick ones like that.”
The Tigers had chances to put the game away in the second, but failed to convert on a pair of lengthy 5-on-3 power plays. That gave Northwest Catholic (21-4-1) momentum and Anthony Ceolin capitalized with a dangle, snipe and celly at 8:22 of the second period.
Paul Arel followed his own blocked shot with a goal that pulled the Lions to within 3-2 with one minute left in the second.
While momentum clearly swung for Northwest Catholic, there was no panic in the Ridgefield dressing room.
However, there was the knowledge, verbalized by Cullinan and Jonas Chang, that the next goal was critical.
“They did not quit, it did not faze them,” Gallagher said. “They just wanted to go back to work.”
Will Forrest netted that pivotal next goal on a snipe that knocked the water bottle off Cal Skwara’s net just 53 seconds into the third.
“Forrest’s goal was the biggest play of the game,” Gallagher said. “It grabbed back momentum. Even the shot, he buried it. That was a huge burst of momentum we needed.”
Stafford stuffed in a rebound to make it 5-2 and van Wees added his second on the power play with 2:20 left to seal a win the Ridgefield players will remember for a lifetime.
“There’s something about a team when you’re together the whole season,” Stafford said. “For something like this to come about is just incredible. It’s awesome.”
After a 4-1 opening round win over Darien, Ridgefield scored three unanswered goals to beat Fairfield Prep in overtime in the quarterfinals before knocking off West Haven, 5-1, in the semifinals.
For Gallagher, it was that come-from-behind win over the Jesuits that provided the needed punch once the Tigers got to Ingalls Rink.
“To beat [Fairfield] Prep in the quarters was incredible. I think that gave us a huge momentum boost to finish up,” Gallagher said. “For the town of Ridgefield, for the school, the community, all the youth hockey coaches and the parents driving them all over the place. It’s special to a lot of people which makes it awesome.”
And for Stafford, it’s the ideal ending to his high school hockey career.
“I don’t think I could ask for anything else,” Stafford said. “It’s awesome. It’s great.”