The high school hockey season has reached the best time of the year. But it’s also the toughest, Cheshire coach Anthony Giusto knows.
This week, his Rams play the SCC/SWC Division II tournament, which features what could end up being the top four teams in the CIAC Division II tournament, too. If they’re to get deep into the state bracket, they’ll have to get through last year’s Division III champion to do it.
Not many teams are hotter, though. Cheshire (15-4-1) has won seven in a row going into Thursday night’s semifinal against Watertown/Pomperaug, which beat the Rams 2-0 early in the season.
“We’ve just had good team chemistry all year,” Giusto said.
“We had that lull the first part of the season where we weren’t scoring goals. We’re finally starting to put the puck in the net.”
Sophomore Niklas Vasiljevs, with seven goals in five games, and Evan Veivia, a senior who has scored some big recent goals, have led that push.
They’ve always known what they have at the other end, with seniors Ben O’Connor and James Ilnicki, a couple of the state’s top defensemen, and junior goalie Nick Maringola. Cheshire has allowed just 27 goals in 20 games, and eight of those came in two games, one of which was a 5-3 win over Guilford.
The Rams’ biggest loss was to Branford, 5-1 on Jan. 3, smack in the middle of that early lull. The Hornets meet Guilford in the other SCC semifinal.
After Saturday’s conference final, it’s off to the state tournament, where waiting for third-seeded Cheshire are the Eastern Connecticut Eagles, who moved up from Division III and were competitive with some strong Division II teams.
“I think the SCC is wide open,” Giusto said. “I think Division II is wide open. In a normal year, you look at your first-round opponent, you might see a weaker team.”
Westhill/Stamford coach John Santagata admits this wasn’t the year he was expecting. With one senior on a young team, with goaltending even younger than the rest of them, with some youngsters coming in, he saw good things coming next year.
So, heads up, FCIAC: These semifinalists, 12-9, are the kiddie version.
“We were kind of still rebuilding, working toward next year, when we’ll have a lot of seniors,” Santagata said. “Actually, the last, probably month or so, we lost a couple of guys to grades, and right after that, we figured we’d do what we have to do.”
The past five games include an overtime win over Fairfield, a win over (down, but still Division I) St. Joseph, and a 7-3 win to end the regular season over top Division II team Guilford, then a 7-4 win over Fairfield in the FCIAC quarterfinals. There was also an 8-5 early-season win over Greenwich, which struggled through midseason but is ninth in this week’s GameTimeCT poll.
Sophomore goalie Luca Scotto had some growing pains but has made some big stops the past few games. Several players have stepped up offensively.
Up next, well, it gets tough: The team’s only loss in the past six is a 7-1 defeat to No. 1 and undefeated Ridgefield. They’ll meet again Wednesday at 3:30 at the Winter Garden.
The Division II tournament awaits, one way or another.
“Knocking off Guilford pretty handily the other night, the top of Division II, it was a good boost,” Santagata said. “It let us see what we’re capable of.
“Fairfield was a gritty game. Ridgefield will be a good, quick game. It’s good conditioning for states.”
Glastonbury has won five in a row heading into a tough regular-season finale and two postseason tournaments, but the Tomahawks may be peaking at the right time.
“We started scoring goals,” coach Ken Barse said. “It’s a result of us playing a little more cohesive. We’ve been moving the puck. We’ve been able to exploit our speed, and we’ve created a lot of odd-man rushes.”
The offense has been spread around, though co-captain Justin Hazard has led the way, with juniors Adam Poetto and Ryan Ginnett stepping up, giving them a couple of scoring lines.
And senior goalie Brendan O’Connor is on top of his game, his coach said.
A 5-1 win at West Haven, then ranked No. 8, on Feb. 16 was a big one for Glastonbury, which followed up a week later with a 6-0 win over South Windsor.
“Moving up in the rankings the last couple of weeks, there’s been a lot of excitement,” Barse said.
“The guys have answered every challenge.”
For the first month and a half, the Tomahawks were the only team to take a point from Northwest Catholic, tying at 3 on Jan. 9.
The Lions are Glastonbury’s foes to finish the regular season, a game that means something in both the CIAC standings (the Tomahawks can move from sixth to fourth with a win) and in the CCC North, where a win gives Glastonbury home-ice for the semifinals against Farmington Valley. A loss, and they’ll visit the Generals.
TAPE IT UP
Hearst colleague Dave Stewart passed along a fantastic photo of Greenwich forward Sean Pratley with “Clearance”: it’s a ball of clear sock tape Pratley has been building up for five years. (See above photo)
START IT UP
A lot of seeds locked in place Monday night when three key results went final within a few minutes. One thing locked in was Division II’s qualifying-round game. East Haven, the 17th seed, will visit 16th-seeded Trumbull at The Rinks at Shelton on Friday at 5 p.m.
The rest of the pairings will come out Friday morning, though a handful of other matchups appeared set. Wednesday’s games mattered: Hamden can hop Fairfield Prep into fourth in Division I with a win over NFI, for one thing.
WRAP IT UP
The last day to count a regular-season game for postseason seedings is Thursday. The Housatonic co-op and BBD will take that to the wire: Their game, now several times postponed, has been moved to Thursday night at 8 at Hotchkiss with snow coming in Wednesday night.
That game will determine at least three, possibly four, seeds at the bottom of the Division III standings. As of Tuesday afternoon, Housatonic could still finish anywhere from 12th to 16th, though the Redhawks’ game Tuesday night against E.O. Smith would narrow that down by one.