WEST HAVEN – Branford’s A.J. Brink and Tyler Criscuolo are familiar with playing in the SCC/SWC championship game. In their four years at Branford, the pair has led the Hornets to berths in the league finals all four years.
Along with a senior class dubbed the “Core Six,” Brink and Criscuolo helped lead the top-seeded Hornets to their second consecutive SCC/SWC Division II title and third in four years with a 5-0 victory over third-seeded New Milford at the Bennett Rink Saturday afternoon.
“This league is so competitive from eleven to one,” Branford coach Adolph Brink said after his team improved to 16-5-1 overall. “You have to be ready to play every day. We have a core six of kids that have been to four finals and won three. That is very difficult to do. It is a credit to the kids. We call them the ‘Core Six.’ They really come to play.”
After sophomore Scott Klouda gave the Hornets a 1-0 lead with a goal with one minute remaining in the opening period and A.J. Brink kept the Wave off the scoreboard with 15 saves in the first two periods, Branford exploded for four goals in the final 15 minutes to take home the title.
Klouda needed just 14 seconds to roof a shot to the top right corner from in front for a 2-0 lead and fellow sophomore Zach Withington came down the right side on a two-on-one break to beat New Milford goaltender Alex Fortuna for a 3-0 advantage 1:02 into the third period.
“It was an entire team effort,” A.J. Brink said after he was named the tournament most outstanding player, making 21 saves. “We all stepped up. I have to give credit to my defense for keeping everything wide. They did a great job. To win three in four years is absolutely amazing.”
What was most impressive about Branford’s start to the final period was the fact the Hornets did the damage without Criscuolo, who was in the penalty box for 12 minutes for a minor and a misconduct for hitting from behind.
“Everyone stepped it up,” A.J. Brink said. “This is definitely a good start (to the postseason). We want to keep the momentum going.”
When Criscuolo returned to the ice, the senior iced the contest within less than two minutes. Criscuolo came in untouched and slipped a backhander through the pads of Fortuna with 6:17 remaining, then ripped a shot from inside the blue line to the top corner for a 5-0 advantage 1:35 later.
“I just wanted to make a difference out there,” Criscuolo said. “The goals got us a nice cushion. I think we were just able to use our speed in the third period. It is a great feeling to win this again. It shows that we bring it all the time. When you look at the history of our league, those are the teams that go the farthest.”
New Milford, which defeated North Branford Friday evening in the semifinals, did not have enough in the third period to make up the deficit. The Wave managed only six shots in the final 15 minutes, with only a shot by a breaking Nate Capriglione, which was denied by an arm save by Brink, proving to be a quality opportunity.
“Everyone stepped it up and we had it close for two periods,” New Milford coach Scott Capriglione said after his team fell to 13-7-2. “Branford has been here before. They know how to do it. I think last night caught up to us. We had not been in this position before. We have to learn how to close it out. But, this is a great step for the program.”
Fortuna finished with 36 saves in the loss for the Wave.
Branford 5, New Milford 0
New Milford 0 0 0 — 0
Branford 1 0 4 — 5
First period—BR: Scott Klouda (Michael Annunziata) 1:00; Third period—BR: Scott Klouda (Jack Murray) 14:46; Zach Withington (Matthew Dow) 13:58; Tyler Criscuolo 6:17; Tyler Criscuolo 4:42; Shots—NMIL: 21; BR: 41; Saves—BR: AJ Brink 21; NMIL: Alex Fortuna 36; Records—Branford 16-5-1; New Milford 13-7-2.