It was a rough start to the season for the Notre Dame-West Haven boys hockey team with losses to No. 2 New Canaan, Simsbury and No. 1 Ridgefield.
But the Green Knights have since turned their fortunes around, going 3-1 in their last four games, and coach Tim Belcher credits better defense as one of the main reasons. Among those three wins for the No. 8 Green Knights are victories over CIAC Division I two-time defending champion Darien and No. 6 Fairfield Prep.
“I think there are several reasons why we have won three of our last four,” Belcher said. “The first is we are playing much better in the defensive zone. We are limiting our opponents to one shot and we are clearing the front of our net pretty good. The second reason is we are finishing plays offensively.
Through our first five games, we had scored 10 goals and that is not going to get it done. Over our past 2 games, we have picked it up offensively.”
Belcher said improvements began when practices became more productive.
“I preach to our players that practice needs to be at game speed and we need to finish offensively,” Belcher said. “I have definitely seen an improvement in practice lately. The third and maybe most important reason for our recent success is special teams.
“Besides this past Sunday against Prep, we scored a power-play goal in every game played so far and that is huge. On Sunday, we scored two short-handed goals. Anytime you can capitalize on man up-man down situations, that makes it easier on you at even strength.”
Among the top players on offense are forwards Matt Ciaburro (seven goals, five assists), Greg Caturano (four goals, five assists) and Vinny Paolillo (three goals, five assists). The top defensemen have been Zach Dumas, Clay Coassin, Liam Hylton, and Kevin Millea. Liam Connell and Brendan Crowley have split the goaltending duties with Connell picking up the last two wins against Darien and Prep.
“All in all, I was not happy with the way we started,” Belcher said. “But our team is resilient and the players are all great kids. I knew we would turn things around and you cannot rush it. But you are only as good as your last game.
“We play another perennial power Wednesday in Notre Dame (Fairfield) at Bennett Rink (4 p.m.) and at (No. 4) Xavier on Saturday (6 p.m.). Our schedule is filled with 20 Division I top teams from Connecticut and Rhode Island. It is a tough schedule but I don’t want it any other way and neither do the kids.”
Hand girls rollin’ with depth
Heading into the 2016-17 season, depth and experience were factors that had five-year Hand girls hockey coach Tad McGwire optimistic the Tigers could produce a special season.
Through the first seven games the combination has led to solid play on both ends of the ice and a 5-2 record.
“The 5-2 start is the best of my five years and I would assume one of the best in the team’s history,” McGwire said. “The primary reason is that we have the deepest team we have ever had with three forward lines, great defensemen and two very solid goalies.
“We have had back-to-back freshman classes with very talented players and we had one defenseman, Sam Rodham, return to the program. In my opinion, Sam is one of the best defensive players in the state. To that end our strength this year has been our defense and our goalies. We have only given up 10 goals in 7 games.”
In addition to Rodham, Kaitlyn Sandor is an offensive-minded defenseman and leads Hand’s defensemen in scoring with two goals and two assists. Adding to the depth on defense is Grace Doheny who leads with a plus-11 rating.
On offense, the top scorer and “a very pleasant surprise” for McGwire has been Haley Rodham. McGwire said she has worked hard on improving her game and leads the team with five goals and two assists. In addition to Haley Rodham two freshmen have made an impact on offense.
Freshman Jaqui Sandor has three goals and three assists and freshman Ciara Halloran. McGwire said Halloran is an elite player and converted defenseman. She has three goals and four assists.
“Centering our third line has been Grace Lavin who is new to the team this year,” McGwire said. “She has brought a lot of energy and relentless pressure to our games and she has contributed on offense with three goals and three assists. Both our goalies, Kylie Gargiulo and Carina Mancini, have played very well with Kylie sporting a .910 save-percentage and Carina at .960.”
McGwire and the Tigers are hopeful the momentum of the early part of this season carries into the second half of the season.
“The three girls we expected to be our top line this season, Sarah Conroy, Bridgette Dwyer and Bradie Stryker, have gotten off to a slow start due to some injuries,” McGwire said. “We have them back at full strength just in time for our toughest stretch of the season. Three of our next four games are against Division I teams that perennially compete for the state championship. We have struggled to be competitive against these teams in the past so I am very anxious to see how we stand up.”
Upcoming Division I schools the Tigers will face are East Catholic/Glastonbury/South Windsor at Newington Ice Rink on Friday at 8:30 p.m., they will host Hamden at Northford Ice Pavilion on Jan. 18 at 8:15 p.m. and the Tigers will face host Simsbury on Jan. 21 at 12:50 p.m.
Next win ties Pane with Crouse
The next win for East Haven boys hockey coach Lou Pane will tie former West Haven coach Artie Crouse with 409 career victories. It is believed the 409 wins would tie the men for third place all-time in Connecticut public schools behind leader Marty Roos (536 wins) and Lou Astorino (record not available).
East Haven hosts Hand today at 7 p.m.