Boys hockey: Ten things to keep an eye on during the CIAC tournaments
Storyline: The past three teams to reach the postseason unbeaten have been FCIAC teams, including 20-0 (now 22-0 after the FCIAC championship) Ridgefield this season. New Canaan went 20-0 in 2010-11. It won three games in what was then an eight-team FCIAC tournament. And it won two state playoff games before losing to St. Joseph, meeting the Cadets for a fourth time, in the semifinals. In 1998-99, a powerful New Canaan team dropped just one point in the regular season, a 3-3 tie at Notre Dame-Fairfield. The Lancers waited in the state final, and for the third time that year, the teams went to overtime. After four eight-minute overtime periods spread over two days (Yale needed the rink back Saturday night for a playoff game of its own, so the Rams and Lancers came back Sunday), Notre Dame won in the fifth. It’s hard to do what Ridgefield is three games away from doing.
You should know: Four of the past six Division I finals have pitted the top two seeds. It’s only happened once each in Division II and Division III in those six years.
YES, THEM AGAIN
Storyline: Defending champion Fairfield Prep, sing it with us: graduated a lot, struggled early, put things together, is the favorite for... and that’s where the needle scratches. One, they’re not the favorite, which is clearly Ridgefield, with the potent Nick Cullinan-Will Forrest-Matt Walker line and a host of talent behind them. Two, the Jesuits have had their ups and downs, including not being able to crack an impassioned, inspired Hamden effort in the SCC/SWC final on Friday. Prep and Hamden could meet in the state quarterfinals, and if it’s another Jake Walker/Donald Moorcroft goaltending duel, bring it on.
You should know: No class has graduated from Fairfield Prep without at least one state hockey championship since 1990. None will until at earliest 2022.
PRIDE OF THE NORTHWEST
Storyline: For a while, it looked like Northwest Catholic might give Ridgefield a run for its unbeaten money, winning its first six before a fairly dominant tie against Glastonbury, winning four more before Notre Dame-Fairfield visited and tamed the Lions. (Couple of solid goalies, there.) They’ll be the second seed in this tournament, drawing a bye for their 17-2-1 regular season that also earned them the top seed in the CCC North tournament; that final was Saturday night,a 4-1 win over Farmington Valley. Junior forward Brennan Horn gets a lot of the attention, but they’re a talented group.
You should know: Of teams that aren’t in the current FCIAC or SCC/SWC, the only two that have won a Division I title are Enfield (1983) and Simsbury (2003).
Storyline: The seeds were there, even amid early struggles and a midseason coaching change. Xavier had a bear of a schedule, and if it didn’t win a lot of early games, it had a deep team that was competitive. In the second half, the Falcons have been a lot more than competitive, 6-2-2 in the past 10. They’re in a tough spot as the eighth seed in Division I; there’s Ridgefield in the second round if they get past No. 9 West Haven. But the Falcons opened their season with a 4-1 loss to Ridgefield, and not many teams played the Tigers closer.
You should know: Xavier is the only team in this year’s Division I or Division II tournaments (counting the host school, for the co-ops) that has never reached a CIAC final at any level.
Storyline: Last year’s Division II and Division III champions are in the same half of this year’s Division II bracket. The No. 10 Farmington Valley Generals lost a lot to graduation, including last year’s GameTimeCT Player of the Year Tim Arena, but they had a decent year going before a five-game losing streak to end their regular season; they got back on track with a win over Glastonbury in the CCC North semifinals. And the Eastern Connecticut Eagles, the 14th seed, remain quite the story, a program that won 37 games in its first 14 seasons and has 33 wins in the past two years.
You should know: Since 1984, a span of 83 tournaments, only seven double-digit seeds have won championships: Four 13s, three 11s.
Storyline: The four seeds in the SCC/SWC Division II tournament, Nos. 1 to 4: Branford, Watertown/Pomperaug, Cheshire, Guilford. The top four seeds in the CIAC Division II tournament: Watertown/Pomperaug, Guilford, Cheshire, Branford. It’s the second time in three years that has happened in Division II: In 2017, the four teams were Watertown/Pomperaug, Guilford, NFI and East Haven. No surprise, this year’s is a solid group, with some excellent goaltenders, like Cheshire’s Nick Maringola and Branford’s Jared Yakimoff, and dangerous scorers, like the Hornets’ Jack Manware, who had points on both goals in Branford’s 2-1 win in the conference championship.
You should know: Branford’s lone state title came in 1988.
MUST BE MARCH
Storyline: The 2018 SCC/SWC Division II final: Guilford 3, Watertown/Pomperaug 2. Last year’s state semifinal: Guilford 2, Watertown/Pomperaug 1. The D-II state final two years ago: Guilford 5, Watertown/Pomperaug 3. This year’s regular season: A 3-1 Watertown/Pomperaug win and a 5-3 Guilford win. There are 14 other teams looking to deny them another postseason meeting on March 18, but if they’re unsuccessful, expect another close one.
You should know: This used to be trickier (well, impossible) when finalists were forced to move up, but the only team to reach three consecutive Division II finals was East Haven, which made four, 1995-98.
Storyline: Hand came into this season without a winning regular season the past five years. It had bottomed out to 5-17 last year. It brought in yet another new coach in a spot that had been, for assorted reasons, a bit of a revolving door. It had an untested goalie, lots of new faces. And all the Tigers did under coach Brian Gonsalves was go 16-3-1 in the regular season. Running a deep (particularly for Division III, but even some elite D-II teams don’t go deeper) lineup and getting contributions up and down it, with a strong season from sophomore goalie Eric Dillner, they easily earned the top seed in Division III.
You should know: Of the 11 true Division III tournaments since 2008 (2006 and 2007 mixed in some Division II teams seeded down to balance the brackets), the top seed has won seven championships.
PARADE DOWN COLONY ROAD
Storyline: The preseason feeling was that the road to the Division III final led through Wallingford. It still could, with Sheehan and LHK (based at Lyman Hall) on opposite sides of the bracket. Sheehan closed stronger, winning the SCC/SWC tournament and beating LHK in their second regular-season meeting. The Trojans had some big wins, including an early-season 7-2 dismantling of Hand and a shutout win over Sheehan in their first meeting.
You should know: Neither Wallingford school has ever been to a CIAC final.
HAVE AT YOU
Storyline: Barlow added Weston and Abbott Tech in a co-op this season, and the newly minted Knights became the greatest show on ice: They’ve scored 141 goals in 22 games, putting up at least seven in nine, getting over 50 goals from sophomore Daniel McKiernan, beating LHK 6-2 in the SCC/SWC Division III semifinals. They’ve also given up 90 goals, surrendering at least seven in six games, falling 10-1 to Sheehan in the conference final. Whatever their result in the state tournament, where they’re the fifth seed and seeking Barlow’s first win in a CIAC playoff game since 1998, figure it’ll be fun to watch.
You should know: Seven of the first 11 true Division III champions have been co-ops. Two of those were first-year co-ops and at least two others added a school to the mix that year.