There will be a new champion crowned in FCIAC ice hockey this Saturday night. Junior forward Brendan Hathaway and the Blue Wave made sure of it.
Hathaway scored three goals, two of which came during a three-goal explosion at the end of the first period, leading top-seeded Darien to a convincing 5-2 victory over two-time defending champion New Canaan in the FCIAC semifinals Wednesday night at Terry Conners Rink in Stamford.
The Rams jumped out to a 1-0 lead on a goal by senior captain Dylan Hart just 1:38 into the first period, but the Blue Wave (16-5) erupted for three goals over the final five minutes to take a 3-1 lead into the first intermission.
Hathaway scored the last two, one on a rebound after a flurry of saves by New Canaan goalie Chris Koennecke and the other off a feed from behind the net by linemate Alec Foresta (three assists).
New Canaan (13-8-1) pulled to within 3-2 with the only goal of the second period, but Hathaway restored the two-goal lead just 1:12 into the third, beating Konnecke through the pads after a turnover inside the blue line and Darien was never challenged after that.
“In the game of hockey, if you go down 1-0 or 2-0, you still have to find ways to battle,” said Darien head coach Chris Gerwig, whose team made amends after suffering a 4-0 setback against New Canaan on Valentine’s Day. “We said, if we happen to fall behind tonight, let’s not get emotional and rattled. If anything it got us boosted up a bit. They had the response I wanted as a coach by coming right back at them.”
Darien will move on to face second-seeded Ridgefield (19-2) in the FCIAC championship game Saturday at 6 p.m. at Terry Conners Rink. The Tigers advanced with a comfortable 6-0 win against No. 3 St. Joseph in the second game Wednesday night.
For the Rams, it was the end of a brilliant two-year run.
“People tend to forget that they were the two-time defending FCIAC champs,” said Gerwig, who successfully reached the conference title game in his first season as head coach at Darien. “New Canaan has a long tradition of winning over there, so for us to put a stop to it is pretty satisfying.”
New Canaan head coach Bo Hickey took no solace in the fact that his team made it this far despite losing 19 players from last season’s team, giving full credit to the team that skated harder and converted its chances.
“They just played better than we did. Plain and simple,” Hickey said. “We scored the first goal and maybe we thought it was over with, but Darien played hard for 45 minutes. They just played a good hockey game.”
New Canaan finished with a 26-18 advantage in shots, but the Blue Wave made the most of their opportunities.
Senior captain Nick Bruno scored Darien’s first goal on a rebound shot from the high slot after Koennecke (13 saves) made a fabulous kick save on Jack Knowlton. Hathaway found himself in the right spot at the right time on the second goal, punching in a loose puck on the left post after two saves by Koennecke and another shot that rang off the post.
Hathaway’s second goal came with 55 seconds left in the first period off a feed by Foresta crossing behind the net and an initial pass by Trent Bergin.
“I think maybe we got a few lucky bounces,” Hathaway said. “But my linemates were working hard to set me up with the goals. We had some good chemistry tonight.”
Darien senior goalie Max Rothston stopped 24 shots to post the victory, stopping senior Tyler Manchuck on a short-handed 2-on-1 break with Dylan Hart in the first period with New Canaan leading 1-0.
Rothston also stopped Henry Stanton on a solo breakway in the first minute of the second period after a turnover in the defensive zone.
“Max really made some nice saves out there,” Gerwig said. “That’s what an All-State goalie is supposed to do for you.”
New Canaan got back in the game in the second period, holding the Blue Wave to just one shot over the first 10 minutes. Stanton made it 3-2, knocking a rebound inside the right post after Rothston made a save on a soft backhand shot by Puck Richardson (two assists). Jack Stanton was also credited with an assist.
But Hathaway allowed everyone wearing Blue and White to exhale, giving Darien a 4-2 lead at 1:12 of the third off assists by Foresta and Bergin.
“That was a big goal and a big swing for us,” Gerwig said. “They probably have the strongest first two lines in the state, so for us to get that goal allowed us to skate hard and try to wear them down a bit.”
Darien did just that, using its great team speed to chew up the clock. New Canaan pulled Koennecke for an extra skater with 1:56 left, but Knowlton cashed in with an empty-net goal off a nice pass off the boards by defenseman Dana Wensberg to seal the vcitory with 1:31 left.
Ridgefield needed far less time to salt its win against St. Joseph away, scoring twice in the first period to take a 2-0 then before cranking out four goals in the second to take a 6-0 lead.
Speedy center Sean Wilkinson, who skates like he was shot out of a cannon, led the Tigers with two goals and one assists. Wilkerson scored one of his goals on a power play and another on a short-handed breakaway off a great led pass up the center of the ice by defenseman Danny McMullen.
Ridgefield was solid from front to back, out-shooting the Cadets 46-15 while getting a shutout performance by senior goalie Nate Gliedman. Chris Morrow scored twice while Terry Guilder and Vin Rella added one goal each for the Tigers. Timmy Kelly collected two assists.
But St. Joseph (15-7) simply had no answer for the speed of Wilkerson, who dominated the ice every time he touched it.
“It’s definitely good for the kids who play on his line,” Ridgefield head coach Sean Gallagher said. “He’s just a special player, not only in the way he plays on the ice but the way he conducts himself off of it.”
Ridgefield gained a measure of revenge against St. Joseph, which knocked the Tigers out of the FCIAC and Division I state playoffs last season.
“We were really excited for this game,” Gallagher said. “It was nice the way it set up for us, giving us the opportunity to rectify what happened last year.”
Now Ridgefield will attempt to redeem itself against Darien, which defeated the Tigers during the regular season to earn the No. 1 seed for the playoffs.
“They’re a good team,” Gallagher said of Darien. “Their goalie does a good job and they all skate hard. We’re looking forward to it, although it’s probably going to be a different type of game than this one.”
Darien is far from satisfied with just a win against its bitter rivals.
“It’s always an emotional game against New Canaan. There’s always a lot of energy in the building, so this is a great win,” Gerwig said. “But we definitely have some unfinished business to take care of.”