SHELTON — It’s been awhile since the New Canaan girls ice hockey team has reached the state championship game — six years to be exact. That’s an eternity for a team which used to make the final its personal playground.
Now, the Rams are back.
Freshmen Grace Crowell and Caitlyn Tully scored second-period goals as No. 1 New Canaan rolled to a 3-1 win over the Simsbury Trojans in the CHSGHA state semifinals Wednesday night at The Rinks at Shelton.
For the seniors on the roster, this has been a long time coming.
“This feels amazing,” senior co-captain Jess Eccleston said. “The goal at the beginning of the season was to play for as long as we can and we’ve done that. Now we’re going to the state final and it’s amazing.”
New Canaan (21-1-2) advances to Saturday’s 1 o’clock state final at Bennett Rink in West Haven, where it will await No. 3 Darien. The Blue Wave are the three-time defending champ.
The Rams are making their first appearance in a state final since 2013, when they beat the Hall/Conard co-op 2-0. That ended a four-year run of state final berths for New Canaan, which won titles in 2010, 2011 and 2013, while finishing runner-up in 2012.
“The last state final for us was 2013,” New Canaan head coach Rich Bulan said. “It’s such a great group, too. A lot of people knew we were going to be good, but I don’t think they thought we could do this being so young. But tonight we had two freshmen and a senior score.”
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New Canaan held a 27-17 edge in shots, but Simsbury did not go down easily, as the Trojans came out of the gates strong and generated a few early scoring chances.
New Canaan goalie Blythe Novick (16 saves) made a great glove save on a shot by Grace Melanson from the slot, and kicked away a slider from Anna Melanson on the other side just 30 seconds later.
“We needed to capitalize,” Simsbury head coach Paul Melanson said. “They’re obviously a really strong team from top to bottom and we needed to capitalize on the chances we got. We gave them everything we’ve got. Every goal is so important against them.”
“Blythe early made three huge saves,” Bulan said. “She kept us even and then we went and scored to get the momentum.”
Eccleston put the Rams on the scoreboard when she collected a pass from Maddie Kloud and fired a shot from the blue line through traffic and into the net at 7:21.
The Trojans responded with 4:20 to go in the first period. Anna Melanson scored on a rebound with an assist from Grace Melanson.
New Canaan settled down between the first and second periods.
“In the locker room, we talked about calming down and playing our game,” Eccleston said. “And then when we got on the ice, we made sure we skated around a little bit and got ready to go.”
After regrouping, the Rams owned the second period and put up a pair of goals.
After some intense pressure on Simsbury goalie Kaitlyn O’Brien (24 saves), Crowell took the puck behind the net, hooked around the pipe and back-handed a shot in to the goal at 1:30.
Tully made it 3-0 with 5:34 remaining in the second when she broke down the center of the ice and, despite falling down, whacked in the puck as she was about to hit the ice. Jade Lowe got the assist, getting the puck to Tully to start the play.
The third period was scoreless, as the Rams did a great job of bottling up the Simsbury attack to nail down the win.
“We just work hard and we’re relentless,” Eccleston said. “We’re all over the ice. If someone has the puck, we have someone immediately on them and then we have people covering the open people so they can’t cover anyone either.”
PLAYERS OF THE GAME
Jess Eccleston and Blythe Novick, New Canaan. The senior defenseman and sophomore goalie were key in holding off a strong Simsbury attack in the first period. That gave the Rams time to settle in and take over in the second.
“The biggest thing for us is that we don’t change anything. We need to stay with our game plan. We need to skate after them, we need to out it down deep and we need to make them work. If we stay true to our game, we’ll be fine.” — New Canaan head coach Rich Bulan
NEW CANAAN 3, SIMSBURY 1
SIMSBURY 1 0 0 — 1
NEW CANAAN 1 2 0 — 3
1st period: NC — Jess Eccleston (Maddie Kloud) 7:21; S — Anna Melanson (Grace Melanson) 10:40; 2nd period: NC — Grace Crowell (Kloud) 1:30; NC — Caitlyn Tully (Jade Lowe) 9:26; 3rd period: No scoring
Saves: S — Kaitlyn O’Brien 24, NC — Blythe Novick 16; Shots: S — 17; NC – 27
Records: Simsbury (16-5-1); New Canaan (21-1-2)